Cancer afflicts approximately one in two men, and one in three women, in his or her lifetime. One of the keys to successful cancer treatment is early detection. Fortunately, screening tools exist for many of the most common cancers, and it is imperative to follow the recommendations of your physician(s) as well as the screening guidelines that exist for many cancers. However, raising awareness of signs and symptoms of cancer can also be useful to maximize the prospects for early detection.
Written by: Dr. Robert McCammon
Early Signs and Symptoms of Cancer
The early signs and symptoms of cancer do not always seem concerning. While the signs and symptoms are not always a cause for alarm, it is important to discuss any sudden changes or persistent problems with a medical doctor.
Not surprisingly, the early signs and symptoms of each cancer vary considerably according to the location or body system involved. It is instructive to review the early signs and symptoms of the most common cancers individually:
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in females. Fortunately, screening mammograms are highly effective for early detection, and most cancers are detected before signs/symptoms arise. However, the following changes can be an indicator of breast cancer:
- A lump, usually painless, in the breast or armpit
- Nipple inversion or discharge
- Change in the size or texture of breast
- Rash or ulcer of skin of the breast
As is the case for breast cancer, there is an effective screening tool for prostate cancer: the PSA blood test. Hence, the majority of men diagnosed with prostate cancer are diagnosed before signs or symptoms arise. However, the following changes can indicate prostate cancer:
- A change in the voiding pattern (frequency, urgency, burning, bleeding)
- Pelvic pain
- Leg swelling
Historically, for most patients, lung cancer unfortunately has been diagnosed at more advanced and often incurable stage. However, the advent of low dose CT screening for high-risk patients has started a shift towards earlier detection. The majority of signs/symptoms of lung cancer, such as severe fatigue, bone pain, coughing up blood, or unintentional weight loss, are only present once the cancer is more advanced. However, the following signs and symptoms can indicate lung cancer even in its earlier stages.
- Shortness of breath, first on exertion and later at rest
- Persistent cough
- Chest pain
And most importantly, remember that it is never too late to quit smoking! Learn more about the effects of smoking here.
Colon cancer is another prevalent cancer for which there is an effective screening tool—colonoscopy. However, the following signs/symptoms can indicate the presence of colon cancer:
- Change is stool pattern (frequency, stool caliber)
- Blood in stool
- New onset constipation
- Sense of incomplete emptying with bowel movements
- Diminished control of gas or stool
Most skin cancers, whether melanoma or non-melanoma, are detected early, likely owing to the fact they are often visible to the naked eye. Melanoma is the most potentially threatening of these cancers, and the following signs of melanoma (so called “ABCDE”) can ensure early detection:
- Asymmetric mole (one side looks different than the other)
- Border of mole is irregular and rough
- The presence of more than one Color (blue, black, brown, tan), or irregular color, of a mole
- Diameter > 6 mm (about the size of a pencil eraser) of mole in question
- Evolving or enlarging mole
See the difference between atypical vs. precancerous moles here.
Lymphoma comes in two broad categories: Hodgkin’s lymphoma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. While sometimes diagnosed after detection of a lump caused by an enlarged cancerous lymph node/gland, either type of lymphoma can present with what are referred to as “B” symptoms:
- Persistent fever (generally >100.4 degrees)
- Night sweats which are drenching (i.e. necessitate change in bedclothes)
- Unintentional weight loss of >10% over preceding 6 months