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More than a quarter of a million people are diagnosed with cancer in the UK each year. The earlier a cancer is found, the more likely it is that treatment will be successful. Knowing what changes to look for and when to see your GP could make a real difference.
It is worth remembering that symptoms are more commonly caused by conditions other than cancer, but it’s important to discuss any concerns you have with your GP.
Knowing how your body normally looks and feels can help you spot early any changes that could be caused by a cancer. Having any of the following symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer, but it’s sensible to get them checked out by your GP.
Your doctor will want to know if you have any of these symptoms. Some people worry about what the doctor will say. It’s natural to be concerned about changes to your body and what they may mean. But the sooner you see your doctor, the sooner they can arrange any tests and explain what’s going on. Usually, the sooner a cancer is found the more successfully it can be treated.
Some cancers have very specific symptoms, but not all cancers will have symptoms in the early stages. Some cancers are diagnosed by accident, while someone is being investigated or treated for another condition.
Cancer can’t be diagnosed based on symptoms alone. Investigations, such as x-rays, scans and biopsies, are nearly always needed to make a diagnosis.
The following are the most common signs and symptoms of cancer. If you have a symptom that isn’t listed here and that’s lasted for a few weeks, it’s a good idea to discuss it with your GP.
You should see your GP if you notice a lump or swelling anywhere on your body.
It can be useful to tell your GP how long it’s been there and if it’s getting bigger or causes discomfort. It can be difficult to tell what a lump is just by feeling it. But if your GP suspects that you might have a cancer, they will refer you to an appropriate specialist for further tests.
If you have a cough or feel breathless| for more than three weeks, you should see your GP. Tell them if you have any blood in your sputum (phlegm) when you cough|.
Blood in your stools (bowel motions) can be a symptom of bowel cancer|. The blood is usually dark but can be bright red in colour.
You may notice a change in your normal bowel pattern, such as diarrhoea| or constipation|, for no obvious reason. Some people may have alternating episodes of diarrhoea and constipation. You may have a feeling of not having emptied your bowel properly after a bowel motion. Some people have pain in the tummy (abdomen) or back passage.
If any changes in bowel habit last for more than six weeks, you should check them out with your GP.
Unexplained bleeding should always be checked out by your GP.
Any unexplained bleeding is a sign that something might be wrong and should always be checked out by your GP.
If you’ve lost a lot of weight over a short period of time (a couple of months or less) that can’t be explained by changes in your diet, increased exercise or stress, it’s important to tell your GP.
Malignant melanoma| is a type of skin cancer| that often starts with a change in the appearance of normal skin. This can look like an abnormal new mole. Fewer than one third of melanomas develop in existing moles. Any of the following changes should always be checked out.
It’s important to see your GP if you have any unusual marks on the skin that last for more than a few weeks, or if you have a mole that shows any of the above signs.
A hoarse voice may be a sign of cancer of the larynx|. Hoarseness can occasionally be a symptom of other cancers, such as thyroid cancer|, cancer of the gullet| (oesophagus) or lung cancer|. If hoarseness continues for longer than two weeks, you should tell your GP.
People often think that pain| is a symptom of cancer, but many people with cancer have no pain in the early stages. Some people with cancer will never have pain.
There are more than 200 types of cancer. Some are very common and others are very rare.
In the UK, the four most common cancers in men are:
The four most common cancers in women in the UK are:
Lung cancer| is common in both men and women. Smoking cigarettes is known to be the cause of most lung cancers.
The symptoms| of lung cancer may include any of the following:
It’s important to have any of these symptoms checked by your GP as early as possible.
The large bowel is made up of the colon and the rectum, and is part of the digestive system. Most cancers of the large bowel develop in the colon.
The following can all be symptoms of large bowel cancer|:
Sometimes tiredness (fatigue) is a symptom of a bowel cancer. This can happen if the cancer has been bleeding, which means that the number of red blood cells in your body is reduced (anaemia). Anaemia may also make you feel breathless.
Sometimes a cancer can cause a blockage (obstruction) in the bowel. The symptoms of this are being sick (vomiting), constipation, pain in the abdomen or a bloated feeling.
Although these symptoms can be caused by conditions other than large bowel cancer, it’s important to get them checked by your doctor.
The prostate is a small gland found only in men. It‘s about the size of a walnut and surrounds the first part of the tube (urethra) that carries urine from the bladder to the penis.
Many men with early prostate cancer| are unlikely to have any symptoms, as these only occur when the cancer is large enough to put pressure on the urethra.
In men over the age of 50, the prostate gland often gets larger due to a noncancerous condition known as benign prostatic hyperplasia or benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH). The symptoms of both benign enlargement of the prostate gland and a malignant tumour (cancer) are similar and can include any of the following:
If you have any of these symptoms, you should discuss them with your GP.
The bladder is a hollow, muscular, balloon-like organ that collects and stores urine. The most common symptoms of bladder cancer| are:
If you have any worrying symptoms, getting them checked out with your GP is the best way to find out the cause.
Breast cancer| mainly affects women, but in rare cases can affect men too|. In most cases, the first symptom| of breast cancer is a painless lump. You should visit your doctor straight away if you notice a lump or other changes in your breast(s). Although most breast lumps are not cancerous (benign), they still need to be checked carefully to rule out the possibility of cancer.
Other, less common signs of breast cancer may include:
Pain in the breast is not usually a symptom of breast cancer, but it can occur.
Symptoms of ovarian cancer| can be quite vague and may not occur until the cancer is at a late stage. When symptoms occur, they can include any of the following:
If you have any of the above symptoms, it’s important to have them checked by your doctor.
Screening is a way of testing healthy people, either to see if a cancer can be found early or to detect changes that may develop into cancer at a later date.
There are national screening programmes for bowel|, breast| and cervical| cancer that monitor people regularly. Speak to your GP for further details.
This section has been complied using information from a number of reliable sources including;
Content last reviewed: 1 February 2012
Next planned review: 2014
For answers, support or just a chat, call the Macmillan Support Line free (Monday to Friday, 9am-8pm)
If you have any questions about cancer, need support or just want someone to talk to, ask Macmillan.
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© Macmillan Cancer Support 2013
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