Common Cancer Symptoms You May Be Ignoring

By Jake Schroeder
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Cancer is one of the leading causes of death worldwide, and billions of dollars each year are spent on researching cures for these deadly groups of diseases. Although medical advancements have progressed to the point that cancer is no longer always a "death sentence," early detection saves lives.

Medical professionals and organizations have published information on the most common yet subtle symptoms of cancer. These symptoms can be difficult to recognize, but they’re important to look out for.

Changes in Bowel Movements

Bloody stool, extreme gas, long-term constipation and sudden changes in the frequency with which you go to the bathroom can all be important symptoms of colon and bowel cancers. Unexplainable changes in the size of your stool may also be a cause for concern.

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Many patients are embarrassed about discussing bowel movements with their doctors, but these symptoms are too serious to ignore. Cancers that affect the bowel often don't have any symptoms until they’re already at advanced stages. There’s an important window of time to treat colon and bowel cancers before they spread to other organs.

Changes in Urination

Changes in urination habits are common signs of urinary system cancers. Blood in the urine should never be ignored. If you suddenly begin to urinate more often than usual, you should talk to your doctor. When you cannot urinate at all or your flow of urine is restricted, your doctor needs to know.

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Urinary problems can be signs of other issues, such as urinary tract infections, but it's best to let a doctor evaluate the seriousness of your symptoms. Pain and burning during urination are also symptoms that could point to cancer.

Weight Gain

It's very easy to blame weight gain on eating habits and lack of exercise, but could it be something more? Many cancers alter the body's hormonal balance. That can lead to rapid, unexplainable weight gain. Ovarian cancer is notorious for this troubling symptom.

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If your diet has not gone through any major changes and you suddenly begin to put on a lot of weight, you should talk to your doctor. There are other diseases, and even some medications, that lead to weight gain, but the risk of cancer is too serious to ignore.


Unexplained Weight Loss

Under normal circumstances, a person’s weight should generally stay the same. If you’re losing weight, it should be because you’re intentionally counting calories, eating less or taking up a new exercise regimen. When you suddenly lose weight in the absence of lifestyle changes, you should talk with your doctor.

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Cancer can disrupt the natural processes that help your body maintain a healthy weight and capture nutrients from food. There are other health issues, such as hormonal imbalances, that could be to blame for unexplained weight loss, but it’s important for a doctor to rule out cancer.

Night Sweats

Night sweats (profuse sweating when you sleep) can happen for a wide variety of reasons. Sometimes, people with uncontrolled blood sugar or poor regulation of thyroid hormones sweat a lot in their sleep.

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If other causes are ruled out and night sweats still persist, it could be a symptom of cancer. It’s best to let a doctor decide if your night sweats are a reason to be concerned. Ultimately, night sweats happen when something in the body isn’t working right, and cancer could be causing that dysfunction.

Swollen Glands

The most visible lymph nodes in the body are located in the armpits, the groin and at the sides of the neck, just under the jawline. When the body battles infection, these glands often become swollen with lymph and germ-fighting cells.

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Some types of cancers attack the blood and the lymphatic system, so they can also cause the lymph nodes to swell. Swollen lymph nodes that never go down or are painful can be indicators of cancer. Whether it’s cancer or some type of infection, swollen glands are worth a doctor’s visit.



Headaches are extremely common signs of a variety of illnesses. Millions of people even suffer from migraine headaches, which can be debilitating and don’t always have a cause or a cure. Malignant brain tumors can also be a cause of frequent headaches.

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Headaches associated with cancer are unique in that they usually cannot be stopped with medicine or other common headache treatments. Although they can build over time, these severe, frequent headaches often cause people to visit emergency rooms. They can cause a person to have trouble speaking or to have impaired vision.

Wounds That Won't Heal

The body has amazing systems to quickly seal a cut or scrape so that the skin appears to be normal again in days or weeks. When you have a sore or a cut that won’t heal for weeks or months on end, you should be concerned. This could be a symptom of skin cancer.

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A dermatologist can often determine if something on your skin looks cancerous and recommend further testing. Even if the unhealed sore is not cancerous, it won’t be a wasted visit because sores that don’t heal can also be signs of other skin problems.

Mouth Ulcers

Ulcers can form in the mouth for many reasons, and most of them heal on their own within a few weeks. They can even be caused by eating too much acidic food. If you don't know of any reason for a mouth ulcer and you get them frequently, you should let your doctor know.

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One mouth ulcer that doesn't heal after a month is enough of a reason to be concerned. Mouth ulcers are a symptom of oral cancer. Instead of rationalizing why you may have one, let your doctor make the decision.



Unfortunately, pain is a part of life for many people. That's why this cancer symptom is so easy to ignore. Pain isn’t normal. It’s a method the body uses to alert us to problems. Malignant tumors can constrict organs and bones, which causes pain.

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If you have a nagging pain in one area and you can't figure out why, let your doctor take a look. Worsening pain is a symptom of many cancers. The pain gets worse as cancer progresses. Don't wait until it becomes excruciating to speak up.


Patients who have anemia have a low red blood cell count. (There are other types of anemia, but this is the reason behind the most common form.) It can happen for a variety of reasons. Many people don't produce enough iron naturally and need supplements to produce enough red blood cells.

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If you have anemia, it's important to figure out why. This is a common symptom of many cancers, especially those that affect the blood system. A sudden decrease in blood cell levels could be a sign of cancer.


Skin cancer is an extremely common type of cancer. It can be very easy to treat in its initial stages, but, if left unchecked, it can metastasize and become deadly. Moles are the most common symptoms of skin cancer.

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Cancerous moles typically have uneven borders, are asymmetrical and are large in diameter. They also usually have uneven color patterns and change in size and shape over time. Regularly examine your own skin for moles, and use sunscreen. If you have a troubling mole, let a dermatologist take a look at it.



If you didn’t get enough sleep last night or you just had a long day of activity, it’s reasonable that you might feel a little tired. If no amount of rest can stop you from feeling tired, you may be suffering from fatigue, which is a symptom of cancer.

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When should you go to the doctor? Fatigue becomes very serious when it alters your quality of life. You might doze off when you’re driving. You could start to turn down social invitations in favor of sleeping, and your performance at work or school could suffer.


A fever is one of the most benign symptoms a person can suffer from, but frequent or long-lasting fevers can also be a symptom of cancer. In normal circumstances, a fever means that the body is fighting against some sort of germ. Cancer can also send the body’s defense systems into overdrive, causing fevers.

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Ovarian cancer, lymphoma and leukemia are all known for causing fevers. These kinds of fevers can be low grade or high grade, but they occur often. These fevers are not caused by any other illness, and they continue to return frequently.


While most of us have had the sensation of a lump in our throats from time to time, it shouldn’t last for very long. If you’re always uncomfortable when you swallow, you may have dysphagia. Dysphagia is a medical term for difficulty swallowing.

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People who are experiencing dysphagia may feel like they’re choking every time they swallow food. It could even feel like there’s food lodged in your throat. While dysphagia can be a symptom of less-serious illness, it’s also a key warning sign for esophageal cancer.


Lost Voice

Many anti-smoking commercials show cancer survivors talking by means of an artificial voice box. Throat cancers and the intense treatment methods necessary to get rid of them can severely damage the voice box. Sometimes, the first sign of throat cancer is hoarseness that won’t go away.

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It’s normal to lose your voice if you have a bad cold or a case of laryngitis, but your voice should return once your other symptoms are gone. If you seem to be losing your voice all the time, consult with your doctor.

Bleeding Outside of Menstrual Cycle

For teenagers and middle-aged women, menstrual cycles may be irregular. It’s normal to have irregular menstrual cycles when they first begin and during menopause when they start to slow and stop. Outside of those times, vaginal bleeding should stick relatively closely to the 28-day cycle associated with the shedding of the uterine lining.

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Spotting or a strong flow of blood outside of the menstrual cycle or after menopause can be an indicator of cancer. Do not delay contacting a doctor. Even if it's not cancer, unusual bleeding can be serious.

Itchy Private Parts

Genital and anal itching can be symptoms of a variety of medical problems, such as yeast infections, urinary tract infections and STIs. All of those common medical problems have a root cause and an easy treatment, so the itching should resolve quickly.

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Genital and anal itching that continues for weeks and months, especially after some kind of treatment, could be a sign of cancers of the reproductive system. If this is a problem you're having, it's important to consult your doctor. Sometimes, it's just a skin problem, but a doctor can determine how to treat it.


Yellow Skin

When a baby has yellow skin, it's easy to diagnose them with jaundice. Adults can get jaundice too, but the symptoms are not always as obvious. When jaundice happens without any other explainable medical circumstance, it can be a sign of cancer.

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Jaundice occurs because of liver dysfunction, which is often a sign of liver cancer. Unfortunately, liver cancer may come secondarily to cancer in other organs. Because the liver is so centrally located in the body, it’s often an organ that cancer first metastasizes to. Let a doctor figure out why your skin is starting to yellow.

Swollen Neck

A swollen neck can be a sign of multiple subtle cancer symptoms. Neck swelling can happen due to swollen lymph nodes, which could signify cancer of the lymphatic system or the blood system. Neck swelling can also happen because of tumors in the esophagus or throat or even on the spine.

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Another common cause of neck swelling is a swollen thyroid gland. There are several health problems that can cause swelling of the thyroid, but one of those diseases is thyroid cancer. If you notice swelling in your neck, work with your doctor to identify a cause.


Coughing is a way of removing mucus or an irritant like dust or pollen from the respiratory tract. Over time, coughing can be irritating and damaging to the structures of the respiratory tract. Although a cough can be a symptom of a variety of easily treatable illnesses, a lingering cough can also be a sign of cancer.

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Coughing that lasts for months on end is a cause for concern. This type of coughing can be so frequent and severe that it disrupts normal breathing. A bloody cough may be an indicator of lung cancer.



Lumps in the breasts and the testicles are signs of breast cancer and testicular cancer, respectively. Everyone knows — or should know —that those areas of the body need to be checked, but lumps in any other part of the body can also be a sign of cancer.

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Many cancers cause tumors, which are cell overgrowths that form lumps. A lump on your arm or leg could be cancerous. A hardened lump in the abdomen or on the side of the ribs could be a malignant tumor. It's best to get any strange growth evaluated by your doctor.


When all of your digestive organ systems are functioning properly together, food goes down and stays down. Belching, vomiting after eating, discomfort after eating and indigestion are all possible signs of cancer. When eating becomes a source of pain and stomach problems, you need to talk to your doctor.

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Stomach, colon and bowel cancers have usually already progressed to an advanced stage by the time they become symptomatic. Chronic indigestion can be a sign of other benign problems, but a doctor has to make that distinction. It's much better to be safe than sorry.


The color and vibrancy of the skin is often an indicator of overall health. Some people are naturally paler than others, but a sudden change in the skin on a person’s face can be a cancer symptom. Especially in children, pallor (skin that looks pale and dull) is a common symptom of leukemia.

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Rather than being a direct result of the blood cancer itself, pallor is a result of the complicated forms of anemia that are consistent with leukemia. If you notice a sudden change in your skin, get evaluated by a doctor.



If you have a limp, you need to figure out the underlying cause of it. Sometimes tumors in the bone, skin or muscle tissue of the legs and feet cause limping because they inhibit normal movement. This is a very rare sign of cancer, but it’s more common among children who have bone tumors. It’s also a symptom of late-stage bone cancer.

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Of course, there are plenty of other reasons for limping. They can happen due to bone and muscle deformities or because of injuries. A limp with no explained cause, or that appears suddenly, is something a medical professional should assess.

Chronic Dizziness

Dizziness that’s severe enough to impair movement or impede normal quality of life often means that there’s a problem with a person’s brain or their nervous system. Sometimes, this dizziness is also associated with nausea and pain in areas like the head and nose.

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Many of these problems link back to a variety of cancers. It could be another medical problem like vertigo, but, when dizziness starts to get in the way of living a normal life, it's time to schedule an appointment with a doctor to determine the root cause.


Heartburn is unique because it’s both a symptom and a cause of cancer. Heartburn happens when corrosive stomach acid lingers in the esophagus. In addition to pain, it can cause scarring and permanent damage to esophageal cells. Over time, this trauma makes a person predisposed to esophageal cancer.

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Even if you have gastroesophageal reflux disease, daily heartburn is a serious symptom. It can lead to cancer, and it's also a sign that you may have it already. Although heartburn may be associated with certain foods, it shouldn't be a regular part of your life.



Bloat can happen for a variety of reasons. Many women experience bloating during their menstrual cycles, and eating certain foods can even cause bloating for some people. When bloating starts to happen on a regular basis, there may be a cause for concern.

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Bloating is one of the biggest symptoms of ovarian cancer. When bloating is accompanied by pain in the stomach and pelvic region, let a doctor evaluate your symptoms. This type of cancer can also cause urination problems. Early detection is extremely important for this potentially fatal cancer.

Inability to Eat as Much

Sudden changes in appetite can be linked to a variety of diseases, but there’s one particular symptom that’s often a strong indicator of stomach cancer. Some people suddenly start to feel stuffed or even bloated after eating far less than they usually do.

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This sensation of feeling full is normal after eating a big meal, but if you start to feel this way all the time after eating only a small amount of food, you should discuss the problem with your doctor. Loss of appetite is another worrying sign.


Stomach cancer is one of the deadlier forms of cancer because it usually metastasizes to other organs before a patient is diagnosed. Stomachaches are common symptoms of a variety of diseases, but if stomach pains are frequent, unrelenting or severe, stomach cancer should be ruled out.

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Stomach pain that is centered on top of the belly button is a common symptom of stomach cancer. Weight loss and swelling of the stomach are also usually associated with stomach cancer. When indigestion, nausea, heartburn and vomiting also become frequent, it could be more than a stomachache.