Signs and symptoms of cancer

It is important to know the common signs and symptoms of cancer. If you have any of the symptoms listed here, get advice from your doctor, nurse or GP practice.

When to see your GP about symptoms

Different types of cancer have different symptoms. These symptoms can be caused by things other than cancer.

It can be difficult to know whether a symptom is important or not. You may worry that you are wasting your GP's time. Or you might feel embarrassed or anxious talking about it.

But if you notice a change in how you feel or how your body works, it is safer to get it checked. A change does not usually mean you have cancer, but it could be something that needs treatment. It is a good idea to get it checked by your GP.

If it is cancer, the earlier it is found, the more likely it is to be cured. If it is nothing serious, your GP can reassure you.

Some symptoms are difficult to talk about, for example a lump on your testicle or vaginal bleeding. But even if it's embarrassing, it is important to get checked.

If you need support or just want someone to talk to, call Macmillan free on 0808 808 00 00.

You can also download or order our fold-out card on the possible signs and symptoms of cancer.

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How to recognise the symptoms of cancer

Ongoing symptoms

This means a symptom that lasts for more than 3 weeks.

Unexplained symptoms

This means a symptom that has no obvious cause. For example, finding a new lump or bleeding when you have not hurt yourself.

Symptoms that are unusual for you

This means a change in your body that is not normal for you. It could be a change in a cough you have had for a long time, or a change to a mole.

Symptoms to watch for

If you have any of the symptoms listed here, tell your GP. You are not wasting their time and it is important to get these symptoms checked.

General symptoms

  • Unexplained bleeding or bruising

    Any unexplained bleeding is a sign that something might be wrong. You should always ask your GP to check it. This can include:

    • blood in your pee (urine), poo (stools), spit or vomit
    • bruises when you have not hurt yourself
    • vaginal bleeding between periods, after sex or after the menopause.
  • Lumps or swellings

    If you notice a new or unexplained lump or swelling anywhere on your body, talk to your GP. It can be useful to tell them:

    • how long it has been there
    • if it is getting bigger
    • if it is painful or uncomfortable.
  • Pain

    If you have a new, unexplained pain anywhere in your body for 3 weeks or more, ask your GP to check it.

  • Severe tiredness (fatigue)

    Tell your GP if you have ongoing, severe tiredness for no obvious reason.

  • Fevers or infections

    It is normal to have a high temperature (fever) when you have an infection. You may also have sweats and hot flushes if you are going through the menopause.

    But tell your GP if you have infections or unexplained fevers that:

    • last a long time
    • keep coming back
    • regularly soak your bed clothes with sweat overnight.
  • Weight loss

    Tell your GP if you lose weight:

    • without trying to
    • without changing your diet or doing more physical activity.

Symptoms that affect how you eat

  • Loss of appetite

    Tell your GP if you regularly:

    • do not feel like eating as much as you normally do
    • feel full quickly when you eat.
  • Swallowing or chewing problems

    If you have any difficulty swallowing or chewing, or a feeling that something is stuck in your throat, you should get it checked by your GP.

  • Indigestion and heartburn

    You may get indigestion or heartburn after eating a large, spicy meal. But you should tell your GP if you get indigestion or heartburn that happens most days for 3 weeks or more, or if it is very painful.

Bladder and bowel symptoms

  • Swollen tummy

    Tell your GP if you have a bloated or swollen tummy (abdomen) that happens often or lasts a long time. It can help to tell them how long you have had this symptom and how often it happens. Feeling bloated can be caused by many different conditions and some types of cancer. In particular, it can be one of the symptoms of cancer of the ovary, fallopian tube or peritoneum.

  • Bowel changes

    If you have any of the following changes for 3 weeks or more, tell your GP:

    • loose or runny poo (diarrhoea)
    • hard poo (constipation)
    • needing to poo (empty your bowels) more often than usual
    • changes to the usual routine of when you need to poo
    • changes to the size or amount of poo when you go
    • blood in your poo, on the toilet paper or in the toilet
    • Lots of things can cause bowel changes, including a simple change in your diet. But they can sometimes be a symptom of bowel cancer.

  • Problems peeing

    Talk to your GP if you have any problems peeing. This includes:

    • a weak flow or needing to strain to start peeing
    • needing to pee more often than usual
    • needing to pee urgently
    • pain when you pee
    • blood in your pee.
    • Problems peeing can be caused by many conditions, including some cancers. In particular, they can sometimes be a symptom of prostate cancer.

Symptoms that affect your speech or breathing

  • Coughs or breathlessness

    Breathing or chest problems are common and can be caused by many things. Sometimes they can be a sign of lung cancer. Tell your GP if you:

    • have a cough for more than 3 weeks
    • have a cough that gets worse
    • feel out of breath for no reason
    • have breathlessness that is getting worse
    • cough up blood.
  • Hoarse voice

    You may get a hoarse voice if you have a cold or severe indigestion. If it lasts for more than 3 weeks, ask your GP to check it.

Symptoms that affect your skin

  • Moles and skin changes

    Tell your GP if you have unexplained skin changes, such as:

    • an unexplained rash
    • an itch that will not go away
    • yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes
    • a new or changing mole.
    • There is an ABCDE checklist in our information about a type of skin cancer called melanoma. It explains the types of mole change you should ask your GP to check.

  • A sore that does not heal

    Most sores heal very quickly. If you have a sore or ulcer that does not heal after 3 weeks, ask your GP to check it. If the sore or ulcer is in your mouth, your dentist can also check for you.

Symptoms in other parts of the body

  • Breast, chest or nipple changes

    A lump in the breast is the most common symptom of breast cancer. But you should also visit your GP if you notice any other changes to the look or feel of your breast, chest, nipple or armpit.

  • Headaches

    Most people get headaches from time to time, often because of stress or tension. But if your headaches are getting worse over time or are different from the headaches you usually get, tell your GP.

    It is particularly important to tell your GP if:

    • your headaches wake you up at night
    • your headaches are worse in the morning
    • you also feel sick
    • you notice a change in your eyesight.
  • Penis and testicle problems

    If you have any changes in how your penis and testicles feel or work, talk to your GP or local sexual health service. You might feel awkward or embarrassed talking about personal problems. But healthcare professionals often have conversations like this, and it is important to get the information you need.

    Changes include:

    • a lump or sore on the penis
    • a swelling or a lump in a testicle
    • a swelling or lump where the leg joins to the body (the groin)
    • a dull ache, pain or heaviness in the scrotum
    • problems getting an erection
    • pain or bleeding when you ejaculate (come).
  • Vulva and vagina problems

    If you notice any changes in your vulva or vagina, talk to your GP or local sexual health service. You might feel awkward or embarrassed talking about personal problems. But healthcare professionals often have conversations like this, and it is important to get the information you need.

    Changes include:

    • a lump, swelling or sore in the vulva or vagina
    • a swelling or lump where the leg joins to the body (the groin)
    • itching, burning or soreness in the vulva or vagina
    • thick or raised red, white or dark patches of skin of the vulva
    • a mole on the vulva that changes shape or colour
    • unusual vaginal discharge, such as watery, blood-stained or smelly discharge
    • heavier or more painful periods than usual
    • bleeding between periods, after sex or after the menopause.

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Tips for talking to your doctor, nurse or GP practice

Deciding to go to your GP is a great first step. The tips below may help you get the most out of your appointment.

Making your appointment

When you make your appointment, tell the receptionist about any extra needs you have. For example, tell them if you need help getting to the appointment or if you need an interpreter. You can also take someone with you to the appointment for support if you want to.

Prepare what you want to say

Before your appointment, think about what you want to tell your GP. You may want to write down some of these details:

  • What is the symptom or change?
  • When did it start?
  • Does it follow a pattern?
  • Does anything make it better or worse?
  • How does it affect your day-to-day life?

You might find it helpful to take your notes with you to the appointment.

Talk and listen

When you talk to your GP, explain why you are there. Use your notes if you prepared any, and explain the symptoms in your own words.

Your GP will listen and ask questions. Answer as honestly as you can and try not to be embarrassed. Your GP often has conversations like this, and they are there to help.

Ask your GP any questions you have. Tell them if you need more information. If you do not understand something, ask them to explain it again. It can be useful to write down the answers, or make notes on your phone.

Know what will happen next

It is important that you know what will happen next. This might include:

  • When you should make another appointment with your GP
  • Where and when to expect an appointment with a specialist doctor or for a test
  • Who to contact if you need information or more support.

Repeat it back

Before you leave the appointment, repeat what you understand back to your GP. This lets them correct any mistakes or explain anything you are confused about.

After your appointment

If there is anything you are not sure of, you can call your GP surgery and ask for advice. Often symptoms are nothing to worry about. But if unexplained symptoms come back or do not get better, talk to your GP again.