Signs and symptoms of cancer

Knowing how your body normally looks and feels can help you be aware of any changes that could be caused by cancer. If you have any symptoms that are ongoing, unexplained or unusual for you it’s important to see your family doctor (GP).

There are certain symptoms you should always have checked. Don’t be scared about getting symptoms checked by your GP. The earlier cancer is found, the more likely it is to be cured.

There are many different symptoms of cancer. Common symptoms include:

  • unexplained bleeding
  • unexplained weight loss
  • a lump or swelling
  • unexplained pain.

These symptoms can be caused by something other than cancer. But it’s always best to have them checked by your GP as soon as possible. You are not wasting their time by getting your symptoms checked.

If you’ve already been to your GP with symptoms but they haven’t gone away, it is important to see them again.

How to recognise the symptoms of cancer

Know your body

If you know your body and what is 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 GP 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 is better to be safe and get it checked.

Always see your GP if you have symptoms that are ongoing, unexplained or unusual for you.

Ongoing symptoms

If you have a symptom that lasts for more than three weeks, see your GP. This might be a cough that doesn’t go away, a change in bowel habits, a mouth ulcer that doesn’t heal, or feeling bloated most days.

Unexplained symptoms

This means a symptom that doesn’t have an obvious cause. For example, having a lump or bleeding without any injury.

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, a change to a mole, new unexplained bleeding or a change in the skin on your breast.

Having any of these symptoms does not usually mean you have cancer, but it is sensible to speak to your GP. The cause of the symptoms is probably nothing to worry about, but it could be a sign of something that needs treatment.

If it is cancer, the sooner it is found, the more likely it is to be cured. And if it’s nothing serious, your GP can tell you not to worry.

If you have already been to your GP but the symptoms haven’t gone away, it is important to see them again in a week or so.


Symptoms to look out for

If you have any of the symptoms listed here, see your GP. You are not wasting their time by getting your symptoms checked.


Unexplained bleeding

Any unexplained bleeding is a sign that something might be wrong. You should always get this checked by your GP.

This can include blood in your wee, poo, spit or vomit. For women, it also includes vaginal bleeding in between periods, after sex or after the menopause.

Weight loss

If you have lost weight without trying to and it can’t be explained by changes in your diet or exercise, tell your GP.

Lumps

If you notice an unexplained lump or swelling anywhere on your body, see your GP. It can be useful to tell them how long it has been there and if it is getting bigger or causes discomfort.

Pain

If you have a new, unexplained pain anywhere in your body that lasts for three weeks or more, see your GP to get it checked.

Extreme tiredness

Tell your GP if you have been feeling more tired (fatigued) than usual for some time, with no obvious reason.

A sore that doesn’t heal

Most sores heal very quickly. If you have a sore or mouth ulcer that hasn’t healed after several weeks, you should get it checked by your GP.

Changes to a mole

See your GP straight away if you notice a new mole, a change in an existing mole, or a change in your skin.

An ongoing cough

Tell your GP if you have a cough that has lasted for more than three weeks, or if it gets worse.

Hoarse voice

You may get a hoarse voice if you have a cold, but if it lasts longer than three weeks you should get it checked by your GP.

Breathlessness

It is normal to be out of breath sometimes. But you should talk to your GP if you are breathless for no reason or it is getting worse.

Change in bowel habit

Lots of things can cause looser poo or diarrhoea, but if it lasts for three weeks or more you should talk to your GP.

Problems weeing

Talk to your GP if you have any problems weeing, such as needing to wee suddenly, or pain when you wee.

Trouble swallowing

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 see your GP if you get a lot of heartburn or indigestion, or if it is very painful.

Bloating

If you feel bloated (having a swollen tummy) most of the time, talk to your GP so they can check it for you.

Night sweats

Some infections can cause night sweats and some women have them when they are going through the menopause. But if you have severe night sweats that drench your bed clothes, you should get them checked by your GP.


Symptoms of common cancers

The earlier cancer is found, the more likely it is to be successfully treated. Knowing what symptoms to look for and when to see your GP could make a real difference.

You are not wasting your GP’s time by getting your symptoms checked. If you need support or just want someone to talk to, call Macmillan free on 0808 808 00 00.

You can download or order our fold-out card on the signs and symptoms of the most common cancers for men and women.

Symptoms of breast cancer

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK. It is more common in women over 50, and nearly half of breast cancers develop in women over 65, but it can happen at any age. Men can also get breast cancer, but this is rare.

Get to know how your breasts look and feel. If there are changes, this will help you spot them early.

See your GP if you have any of these symptoms:

  • a new lump or an area that feels denser in your breast or armpit
  • a change to your nipple, such as a rash, discharge or the nipple changing direction or turning in
  • a change to the skin on your breast, such as puckering, dimpling or redness
  • a change in the size or shape of your breast
  • constant discomfort or pain in one breast.

Most breast changes are not caused by cancer. But if you notice any changes or symptoms, it is important to see your GP.

If you would prefer to see a female doctor, your GP surgery should be able to arrange this for you.

Symptoms of prostate cancer

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men. You have a higher risk of developing prostate cancer if you are over 50, of African-Caribbean or African origin, or have a father or brother who has had it.

Men with early prostate cancer may not have any symptoms. Symptoms only happen when the cancer is large enough to put pressure on the urethra (the tube that carries urine from the bladder). The prostate can also become enlarged due to a condition called benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), which is not a cancer. The symptoms of BPH and prostate cancer are similar.

See your GP if you have any of these symptoms:

  • difficulty starting to wee
  • a weak flow of wee
  • urgently needing to wee
  • needing to wee often, especially at night
  • a feeling of not completely emptying your bladder
  • blood in your wee or semen
  • pain when weeing or ejaculating.

These symptoms are often caused by things other than cancer. But if you have any of them, it is important to see your GP. The earlier prostate cancer is found, the more likely it is to be successfully treated.

If you are worried about prostate cancer but don’t have any symptoms, talk to your GP about being examined and doing a PSA test.

Symptoms of lung cancer

Lung cancer is common in both men and women. Smoking is the main cause of lung cancer, but non-smokers get it too. Almost 9 in 10 people diagnosed with lung cancer are over 60.

See your GP if you have any of these symptoms:

  • a cough that lasts for three weeks or more
  • a change in a cough you have had for a long time
  • a chest infection that doesn’t get better, or repeated chest infections
  • feeling breathless for no reason
  • coughing up blood
  • a hoarse voice that lasts for three weeks or more
  • pain in your chest or shoulder that doesn’t get better
  • losing weight for no obvious reason
  • feeling more tired than usual.

These symptoms can be caused by other things. Most people with these symptoms do not have lung cancer. But if you have any symptoms, it is important to see your GP.

Symptoms of bowel cancer

Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK. It can affect both men and women. Most people who get bowel cancer are over 50, but it can happen at any age.

See your GP if you have any of these symptoms:

  • bleeding from your bottom
  • blood in your poo for three weeks or more
  • looser poo or diarrhoea that lasts for four weeks or more
  • pain or a lump in your tummy or back passage (rectum)
  • feeling that you haven’t emptied your bowel properly after going to the toilet
  • losing weight for no obvious reason
  • feeling more tired than usual.

These symptoms can be caused by other things. Most people with these symptoms do not have bowel cancer. But if you have any of them, it is important to see your doctor.

If you develop symptoms after a normal bowel screening test, you should still get them checked by your GP.

Symptoms of kidney and bladder cancer

Bladder and kidney cancers are more common in men and people over 50, but can affect people of any gender or age.

See your GP if you have any of these symptoms:

  • blood in your wee, even if it's only once
  • needing to wee very often (frequency)
  • needing to wee suddenly (urgency)
  • pain or a burning feeling when you wee
  • pain in your lower back or tummy
  • a lump in the tummy area, side or back.

These symptoms can be caused by things other than cancer, such as an infection, bladder stones or kidney stones. But if you have any of them, it is important to see your GP.

Symptoms of melanoma

People with fair skin that freckles and burns in the sun are at a higher risk of getting a type of skin cancer called melanoma. You can reduce your risk by using a high-factor sun cream (at least SPF 30) and not using sunbeds.

About half of all melanomas are found in people over 65, but it can happen at any age. It is one of the most common cancers in people aged 15 to 34.

See your GP straight away if you notice a new mole, a change in an existing mole, or a change in your skin. You could ask someone close to you to check areas you can’t see, such as your back. Always see your GP if you have a mole that:

  • is changing in size, shape or colour
  • is not symmetrical
  • has a border with jagged edges
  • is more than one colour
  • is wider than 6mm (about the size of the blunt end of a pencil)
  • tingles or itches
  • bleeds or is crusty.

You should also see your GP if you have changes in a nail, such as:

  • a new, dark-coloured stripe along part of the nail
  • something growing under the nail.

These symptoms can be caused by things other than melanoma. But if you have any symptoms, it is important to see your GP. When it is found early, melanoma can usually be cured with a simple treatment.

Symptoms of mouth and throat cancer

Mouth and throat cancer is more common in men and people over 65, but can happen at any age. The main risk factors are smoking and drinking alcohol. Another risk factor is infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV).

See your dentist or GP if you have any of these symptoms:

  • a lump or ulcer in your mouth that doesn’t heal after two weeks
  • a red or white patch in your mouth that doesn’t go away
  • a sore tongue, mouth or throat that doesn’t get better
  • a new swelling or lump in your mouth or neck
  • changes to your voice, such as hoarseness
  • difficulty or pain when chewing, swallowing or speaking
  • feeling that something is stuck in your throat
  • changes in hearing, earache or pain around the ear
  • loose teeth or badly fitting dentures
  • a blocked nose, or altered sense of smell or taste without having a cold
  • bleeding in the mouth or tasting blood
  • losing weight for no obvious reason.

These symptoms are often caused by things other than cancer. But if you have any of these symptoms, it is important to see your dentist or GP.

Symptoms of ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer is more common in women over 50, but it can affect women of any age. If two or more of your close relatives have had ovarian or breast cancer, you may be at a higher risk. Your close relatives include your mother, sisters or daughters.

The symptoms of ovarian cancer can often be vague. See your GP if you have any of these symptoms most days for three weeks or more:

  • feeling bloated (a swollen tummy) most of the time
  • feeling full quickly or not wanting to eat much
  • pain in your lower tummy or pelvis most of the time
  • needing to wee more often than normal
  • a change in bowel habit, such as diarrhoea or constipation
  • back pain
  • feeling tired all the time.

These symptoms can be caused by other things. Most women with these symptoms do not have ovarian cancer. But if you have any of these symptoms, it is important to see your GP. The earlier ovarian cancer is found, the more likely it is that treatment will be successful.

Symptoms of cervical cancer

Cervical cancer usually affects women over the age of 20. The highest rates occur in women aged 30 to 34. Girls aged 12 to 13 are now routinely offered a human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine to protect them against cervical cancer. HPV is a virus that can increase the risk of developing cervical cancer.

Early-stage cervical cancer may have no symptoms. This is why it is important to go for your regular cervical screening, so that any early cell changes can be picked up.

See your GP if you have any of these symptoms:

  • bleeding between periods
  • bleeding during or after sex
  • bleeding after the menopause (after you have stopped having periods)
  • vaginal discharge that smells unpleasant
  • pain or discomfort during sex
  • pain in the lower back or pelvic area.

If you are going to your GP surgery for regular screening, let them know if you develop any of these symptoms between screenings. You may feel embarrassed talking about these symptoms, but your GP or practice nurse will see many women with similar symptoms. They will do their best to put you at ease.

There are many other conditions that can cause these symptoms. But if you have any symptoms, it is important to see your GP.

Symptoms of womb cancer

Womb cancer is more common in women over 40 and rare in women under 35. Most womb cancers start in the lining of the womb (the endometrium).

The most common symptom of womb cancer is unusual vaginal bleeding, for example:

  • bleeding after the menopause
  • bleeding in between periods
  • heavier periods than usual (if you haven’t been through the menopause)
  • a watery or bloody vaginal discharge.

Less common symptoms are pain or discomfort in the pelvic area, or pain during sex.

If you have any unusual vaginal bleeding, always see your GP to get it checked. The earlier womb cancer is found, the more likely it is to be cured.

Symptoms of testicular cancer

Testicular cancer is more common in men under 35, but it can affect men of any age.

See your GP if you have any of these symptoms:

  • swelling or a lump in a testicle, which is usually painless – sometimes the swelling may suddenly get bigger and become painful
  • a dull ache or pain, or heaviness in the scrotum.

These symptoms are often caused by things other than cancer. But if you have any symptoms, it is important to see your GP.

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.

Getting diagnosed

If you have any unusual symptoms or changes to your body that are worrying you, go and see your GP.

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.