What are signs and symptoms?Signs and symptoms are both signals of injury, illness, disease – signals that something is not right in the body.
A sign is a signal that can be seen by someone else – maybe a loved one, or a doctor, nurse, or other health care professional. For example, fever, fast breathing, and abnormal lung sounds heard through a stethoscope may be signs of pneumonia.
A symptom is a signal that’s felt or noticed by the person who has it, but may not be easily seen by anyone else. For example, weakness, aching, and feeling short of breath may be symptoms of pneumonia.
How does cancer cause signs and symptoms?Cancer is a group of diseases that can cause almost any sign or symptom. The signs and symptoms will depend on where the cancer is, how big it is, and how much it affects the organs or tissues. If a cancer has spread (metastasized), signs or symptoms may appear in different parts of the body.
As a cancer grows, it can begin to push on nearby organs, blood vessels, and nerves. This pressure causes some of the signs and symptoms of cancer. If the cancer is in a critical area, such as certain parts of the brain, even the smallest tumor can cause symptoms.
But sometimes cancer starts in places where it won’t cause any signs or symptoms until it has grown quite large. Cancers of the pancreas, for example, usually don’t cause symptoms until they grow large enough to press on nearby nerves or organs (this causes back or belly pain). Others may grow around the bile duct and block the flow of bile. This causes the eyes and skin to look yellow (jaundice). By the time a pancreatic cancer causes signs or symptoms like these, it’s usually in an advanced stage. This means it has grown and spread beyond the place it started – the pancreas.
A cancer may also cause symptoms like fever, extreme tiredness (fatigue), or weight loss. This may be because cancer cells use up much of the body’s energy supply, or they may release substances that change the way the body makes energy from food. Cancer can also cause the immune system to react in ways that produce these signs and symptoms.
Sometimes, cancer cells release substances into the bloodstream that cause symptoms that are not usually linked to cancer. For example, some cancers of the pancreas can release substances that cause blood clots in veins of the legs. Some lung cancers make hormone-like substances that raise blood calcium levels. This affects nerves and muscles, making the person feel weak and dizzy.
What are some general signs and symptoms of cancer?You should know some of the general signs and symptoms of cancer. But remember, having any of these does not mean that you have cancer – many other things cause these signs and symptoms, too. If you have any of these symptoms and they last for a long time or get worse, please see a doctor to find out what’s going on.
Unexplained weight lossMost people with cancer will lose weight at some point. When you lose weight for no known reason, it’s called anunexplained weight loss. An unexplained weight loss of 10 Kgs or more may be the first sign of cancer. This happens most often with cancers of the pancreas, stomach, esophagus (swallowing tube), or lung.
FeverFever is very common with cancer, but it more often happens after cancer has spread from where it started. Almost all people with cancer will have fever at some time, especially if the cancer or its treatment affects the immune system. (This can make it harder for the body to fight infection.) Less often, fever may be an early sign of cancer, such as blood cancers like leukemia or lymphoma.
FatigueFatigue is extreme tiredness that doesn’t get better with rest. It may be an important symptom as cancer grows. But it may happen early in some cancers, like leukemia. Some colon or stomach cancers can cause blood loss that’s not obvious. This is another way cancer can cause fatigue.
PainPain may be an early symptom with some cancers like bone cancers or testicular cancer. A headache that does not go away or get better with treatment may be a symptom of a brain tumor. Back pain can be a symptom of cancer of the colon, rectum, or ovary. Most often, pain due to cancer means it has already spread (metastasized) from where it started.
Skin changesAlong with skin cancers, some other cancers can cause skin changes that can be seen. These signs and symptoms include:
- Darker looking skin (hyperpigmentation)
- Yellowish skin and eyes (jaundice)
- Reddened skin (erythema)
- Itching (pruritis)
- Excessive hair growth
Signs and symptoms of certain cancers
- Change in bowel habits or bladder function
- Sores that do not heal
- White patches inside the mouth or white spots on the tongue
- Unusual bleeding or discharge
- Thickening or lump in the breast or other parts of the body
- Indigestion or trouble swallowing
- Recent change in a wart or mole or any new skin change.
- Nagging cough or hoarseness
Finding cancer early
When to see your doctorRegular checkups are important because healthcare professionals like doctors are trained to spot the early warning signs of cancer. But even if you’ve recently seen your doctor for a checkup, it’s important to report any of these changes as soon as possible:
- a new or unusual lump or swelling in the breast, testicles or any other part of the body
- any sore which does not heal anywhere on your body or in your mouth
- obvious change in the shape, size or colour of a mole or wart
- a nagging cough, hoarseness or a croaky voice
- difficulty swallowing
- blood in the urine, stool or phlegm
- unusual bleeding or discharge of any sort from the nipple or vagina
- any change in bladder habits, such as pain or difficulty urinating
- any change in bowel habits (constipation or diarrhea) that last more than a few weeks
- persistent indigestion
- unexplained weight loss, fever or fatigue
- unexplained aches and pains
- any new growth on the skin, or patches of skin that bleed, itch or become red