Cancer often presents with non-specific features that may also be explained by benign, more common causes. This makes a high index of suspicion necessary in order to investigate and diagnose it correctly.
Signs and symptoms will depend on the size of the cancer, where the cancer is, and how much it affects the surrounding organs or structures. The common mechanisms that cause symptoms are compression, occlusion, erosion and invasion of organs and structures, such as nerves, joints and vessels. If a cancer metastasises, then symptoms may appear in different parts of the body. For example, in certain parts of the brain, even the smallest tumour may produce symptoms. In contrast, pancreatic cancers may not cause symptoms until the disease is advanced. In some cancers, the metastases may produce symptoms before the primary tumour. In prostate cancer, it is not uncommon for bone/joint pain to precede any urinary symptoms.
Some general signs and symptoms of cancer include:
- Weight loss: unexplained (unintentional) weight loss may be the first sign of cancer, particularly cancers of the pancreas, stomach, oesophagus, or lung.
- Fatigue: may be an early or late symptom.
- Fever or night sweats: more often seen in advanced disease.
- Pain: often a symptom of advanced disease.
- Skin changes: certain cancers can produce visible skin signs such as hyperpigmentation, jaundice, erythema, itching, or excessive hair growth.
More specific signs and symptoms include:
- Change in bowel habit/bladder function: chronic constipation or diarrhoea may be a sign of colon cancer.
- Unusual bleeding or discharge: blood in sputum, faeces or urine; abnormal breast or vaginal discharge.
- Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia): may indicate cancer of the oesophagus, stomach, or pharynx.
- Hoarseness/cough: A persistent cough may be a sign of lung cancer. Hoarseness may indicate cancer of the larynx.
- Non-healing sores: A persistent sore in the mouth could be an oral cancer and should be dealt with promptly, especially in patients who smoke, chew tobacco, or frequently drink alcohol.
Many people refer to the “Seven Signs and Symptoms of Cancer”:
- Change in bowel or bladder habits.
- A sore on the skin or in the mouth that does not heal.
- Unusual bleeding or discharge from the rectum, bladder or vagina.
- A new lump in the breast or testes.
- Indigestion or trouble swallowing.
- Obvious changes to moles or warts.
- Nagging cough or hoarseness that persists for four to six weeks.
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