Cancer is the second most common cause of death in the United States, lagging only slightly behind heart disease. Over 1.5 million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer and close to 600,000 Americans will die of cancer. Overall as many as 4 in 10 adults in the United States will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lifetime. Early diagnosis is the key to successfully treating cancer. Knowing the signs and symptoms of cancer can greatly assist with identifying cancer sooner rather than later.
General vs Specific Cancer Symptoms
The signs and symptoms of cancer can be classified as generalized/non-specific or localized/specific symptoms. It is important to understand that all of these signs and symptoms can be due to many other conditions. Therefore cancer should not be the only consideration when these signs and symptoms arise.
Generalized (often referred to as general) refers to signs and symptoms that can affect the entire body or may not be isolated to one specific region of the body (non-specific). For example, fatigue cannot be attributed to a specific part of the body and occurs with several types of cancer.
Localized refers to signs and symptoms that are isolated to a specific region of the body or indicate a problem with a specific organ. Therefore it is also known as specific signs and symptoms. For example, blood in the stool may be a sign of colorectal cancer.
General Signs and Symptoms
These general signs and symptoms are common in many diseases. This includes conditions that are not associated with abnormal growths like cancer. Therefore cancer cannot be diagnosed based solely on these general signs and symptoms and medical advice is necessary.
Fatigue and Weakness
These are two common symptoms of cancer that are non-specific. Fatigue is prominent in most types of cancers and more so in certain types. The reason for this fatigue is not always clear. Sometimes it may be due to iron-deficiency anemia which may occur as a result of bleeding from a malignant tumor.
Weakness may arise for similar reasons but can also be related to the tumor affecting nerves, muscles and/or hormones. While fatigue may arise in the early stages of cancer and be accompanied by weakness to some degree, weakness is usually a pronounced symptom in advanced stages of cancer.
Fever and Night Sweats
Fever and night sweats may also occur in some types of cancer. As with fatigue and weakness, fever may occur for various reasons. It may be due to the way the immune system reacts to the cancer, substances secreted by the tumor or with cancer cells generating excessive energy.
Night sweats (nocturnal hyperhidrosis) is excessive sweating that occurs during sleep. It is not a common general sign but should be considered as a cancer symptom. Fever and even night sweats may be a sign of cancers like lymphoma or leukemia. However, infections and autoimmune diseases need to be ruled out as possible causes.
Unintentional Weight Loss
Unintentional weight loss is another common in cancer. It is more likely to occur in certain types of cancer. Unintentional weight loss refers to a drop in body weight without any significant change in diet and physical activity levels. However, body weight fluctuations are not uncommon. Therefore unintentional weight loss should not be considered on its own and the degree of weight loss as well as the duration over which it occur should also be considered.
Specific Signs and Symptoms
There are many specific signs and symptoms that may arise depending on the the type and location of cancer. Apart from gender-specific cancers like ovarian, breast and prostate cancer, the following signs and symptoms may apply to the most common cancers seen in the United States in both men and women.
Read more on common types of cancer.
There are many reasons for a persistent cough but smokers in particular need to be concerned about lung cancer. It can occur in non-smokers but tobacco smokers are more commonly affected. Other symptoms of concern that may accompany a persistent coughing includes bloody sputum, shortness of breath and abnormal breathing sounds such as wheezing. These symptoms may also occur with a host of lung infections (pneumonia).
Blood in the stool or bleeding when wiping after a bowel movement may be a signal of colon, rectal and/or anal bleeding. There are many possible reasons for this type of bleeding, such as hemorrhoids (piles) which is a common but not a serious condition. However, the bleeding could be a sign of colorectal cancer. This should be considered when there are other signs and symptoms like a change in bowel habit, tenesmus (persistent urging to pass stool) and lower abdominal pain.
Read more on signs of colorectal cancer.
Blood in Urine
The presence of blood in the urine (hematuria) is often not detectable with the naked eye. It is often microscopic and only detected with diagnostic tests like a urine dipstick test. However, when the bleeding from the urinary tract is more extensive then it may cause a discoloration of the urine. With severe bleeding, the urine may appear red in color. This may be a sign of bladder cancer or kidney cancer. Other signs and symptoms include frequent urination, pain when urinating, pelvic and back pain.
Abnormal Marks on the Skin
A number of different skin blemishes can be a cause for concern when it comes to the possibility of a melanoma. Most of the time this is classified as an abnormal mole but it may not always be as obvious. Watch out for any new mark, blemish or mole which is irregularly shaped, with uneven borders, has a variation of colors and is growing beyond 1/4 inches (6mm diameter) which is constantly changing in size, shape and color.
Enlarged Lymph Nodes
Lymph nodes may swell for many different reasons, and is most commonly a sign of an infection. However, swollen lymph nodes in the neck, armpits or groin can be a sign of certain cancers like non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The swelling is usually painless and there may be other symptoms like chest and/or abdominal pain, fever, night sweats, fatigue and unintentional weight loss.