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.

Know your body

If you know your body and what’s normal for you, it will help you to be aware of any changes. People sometimes think a change in their body isn’t worth bothering their doctor about. Or they may feel embarrassed talking about it.

But if you notice a change in how you feel or how your body works, it’s better to be safe and get it checked. You should go to see your doctor if you have:

  • a lump anywhere on your body
  • sore or ulcer that doesn’t heal within three weeks
  • a mole that changes shape, size or colour, crusts over or bleeds
  • a cough or hoarse voice 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 your urine, bowel motions, semen, spit or vomit, or abnormal bleeding from your vagina
  • a need to pass urine more often or urgently, or pain when passing urine
  • unexplained weight loss or tiredness
  • an unexplained ache or pain that lasts for more than three weeks.

Most of the time, these changes aren’t due to cancer. But finding a cancer early can make a big difference to how successful treatment is.

There is more information on when you should talk to your doctor about changes in your body at

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 Understanding

What is cancer?

There are more than 200 different kinds of cancer, each with its own name and treatment.

Cancer and cell types

Cancers are grouped into types. Types of cancer often behave and respond to treatments in different ways.

Symptoms and common cancers

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

How is cancer treated?

There are five main types of cancer treatment. You may receive one, or a combination of treatments, depending on your cancer type.

Why do cancers come back?

Sometimes, tiny cancer cells are left behind after cancer treatment. These can divide to form a new tumour.