Getting diagnosed

If any symptoms or changes continue for a couple of weeks or more, speak to your doctor. This includes:

  • A lump anywhere on your body.
  • A cough or hoarseness that lasts for more than three weeks.
  • A change in bowel habit that lasts for more than three weeks.
  • Any abnormal bleeding from your vagina or back passage, in your urine or when being sick (vomiting).

At the appointment, your GP will discuss any symptoms and may want to examine you. They won’t be able to tell you if you have cancer at this stage. But they may refer you for further tests. 

There are guidelines to help GPs know when to refer people to a specialist if their symptoms might be due to a cancer.

Why and when to see your GP

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.

If you know your body and what is normal for you, it will help you to be aware of any changes.

Sometimes people, particularly as they get older, think a change in their body isn’t worth bothering their doctor about. But, if you notice a change in how you feel or how your body works and you’re not sure why it’s happened it’s better to be safe and get it checked out.

You should go to see your doctor if you have:

  • a lump anywhere on your body
  • a sore or ulcer that doesn’t heal within a few weeks
  • a mole that changes shape, size or colour or bleeds
  • a cough or hoarseness that lasts for more than three weeks
  • shortness of breath
  • loss of appetite, ongoing indigestion or difficulty swallowing
  • a change in bowel habit that lasts for more than three weeks
  • blood in urine, bowel motions, spit or vomit or abnormal bleeding from your vagina
  • unexplained weight loss or tiredness
  • unexplained ache or pain that last for more than four weeks

Most of the time these changes aren’t due to cancer but, if you do develop cancer, finding it early can make a big difference, so get them checked out.

It’s important to see your GP if you have an unexplained or ongoing change in your body.

A light green watercolour paint splash with the quote 'I did the typical bloke thing of ignoring it' written on it.

If you’re an older person

As you get older, you are more likely to experience one or more health conditions. It can be easy to assume that new problems are just part of ageing or existing conditions. But if you are experiencing any new, persistent symptoms, there is a chance they could be a sign of cancer, so it’s important that you tell a GP or another healthcare professional.

Visiting your GP

Before visiting your GP it's a good idea to plan what you'd like to say and any questions you'd like to ask.

When you see your GP, you'll need to describe your symptoms. This helps them decide what the problem may be. Your GP may want to examine you. Sometimes, and depending on your symptoms, they may need to examine inside you. The GP will explain how they will examine you and answer any questions you may have.

Depending on the kind of symptoms you have your GP may arrange for you to have some routine tests and investigations. The results of these will help your GP to find out what the problem might be and decide what kind of specialist doctor you should see.

Sometimes the symptoms of cancer can be the same as other, much more common health problems, which are far easier to treat. This means that it can sometimes be hard for your GP to know whether your symptoms are a sign of cancer or something much less serious.

To help GPs, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has produced referral guidelines. These are a list of risk factors, and signs and symptoms that could suggest cancer. They help your GP decide what sort of tests you should have and how quickly you should see a specialist, ie whether you should be referred within a few hours, called an immediate referral, within two weeks, which is an urgent referral, or longer, which is a non-urgent referral.

Your GP will give you information so that you know what's going on. They can also give you support if you need it.

Back to Signs and symptoms

Symptoms and common cancers

The most common cancers among men and women in the UK are lung, large bowel, prostate, bladder, breast and ovarian.