10 subtle signs you might have cancer
Cancer can occur anywhere in the body and cause “almost any” symptom, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). Sometimes these symptoms are impossible to ignore. But sometimes they’re vague and all too easy to brush aside or miss completely.
But noticing cancer symptoms is important, since treatments work best when the disease is found early. So INSIDER asked two doctors – Ioana Bonta, medical oncologist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America, and Marleen Meyers, breast medical oncologist at NYU Langone Medical Center – about cancer symptoms you might miss.
Both stressed that, even if you notice a possible sign of cancer, you shouldn’t panic. Lots of symptoms that sometimes indicate cancer are most often caused by something totally benign.
“Unless the symptoms are interfering with your day to day life or life-threatening, the key is to keep an eye on it for a while and see if it goes away, because for most people it will,” Meyers said. Her rule of thumb: If a new symptom doesn’t resolve after about two weeks, that’s a good time to call your doctor.
This list is by no means exhaustive – symptoms can vary greatly based on cancer type, size, and location in the body – but it’s a good place to start. Here are 11 possible symptoms to look out for.
Both Bonta and Meyers listed fatigue – tiredness that doesn’t get better with rest – as a cancer symptom that’s easy to miss.
“When you have fatigue, my recommendation is do a little bit of analysis,” Bonta said. There could be any easy explanation – maybe you’ve been sleeping poorly or recently started a new medication.
“But if all the other things are in order and this is a new symptom for you, then I’d be worried about it,” Bonta said.
- Skin bumps
“One thing that’s often overlooked are skin cancers and skin lesions,” Meyers said. “Skin cancers don’t necessarily look ugly and scary. They sometimes can look like just little raised pink growths. Melanomas, which are the most deadly type of skin cancer, aren’t necessarily pigmented and they also can occur in odd places in the body, including under your fingernails under your toenails.”
“For skin cancer we have to know our own skin and see if there’s any change,” Bonta added. (Here’s a simple guide to skin checks from the ACS.)
A wound that won’t heal is another potential sign of skin cancer, dermatologist Dr. Allison Arthur previously explained to INSIDER.
“A common story that my patients will tell me is, ‘I have this sore, I thought it was a pimple, it bled, and then I thought it was going away but then it bled again,'” she said.
- Unexplained weight loss
Bonta said that unexplained weight loss can be a symptom of cancer. If you drop 10 pounds or more without trying to, it’s worth calling your doctor.
The ACS says unexplained weight loss happens most often pancreatic, stomach, esophageal, and lung cancers.
- Feeling full really quickly
Ovarian cancer can be tough to catch in its early stages. One possible symptom might be early satiety, Bonta said. That’s when you feel full after eating only small amounts of food.
The National Ovarian Cancer Coalition has a complete list of possible signs and symptoms women should know about.
- Breast rashes
Lumps are the most common sign of breast cancer, according to the ACS. But they’re not the only sign.
“The breast is not a common place to have a rash,” Bonta said. “I would look into that.”
People with ovarian cancer may also experience bloating or a swelling stomach, Bonta said.
“If a woman reports pelvic or abdominal pain, increased abdominal size, bloating, difficulty eating, or feeling full quickly – and if the symptoms are new within the past year and if they occur more than 12 times per month – it’s a red flag.”
Bonta said that fever is sometimes a cancer symptom. Most often, it’s a sign that a cancer has spread to a different part of the body than where it started, but it can be an early symptom of blood cancers leukemia or lymphoma, according to the ACS.
“Any pain that’s out of proportion with your activity is a red flag,” Bonta said. “If I go to the gym today and I pull a muscle, I have a reason for pain. But if I have leg pain, I don’t remember injuring my leg, it doesn’t go away, and three days later I still have to take pain medication, that’s a problem.”
Bonta said some iron deficiency anemia is easily explained – it can happen to women with heavy periods, for example. But unexplained iron deficiency anemia may be a “red flag” for cancer in the colon or rectum, she added.
The ACS explains that some colorectal cancers, as they’re often called, can bleed into the intestine. Over time that loss of blood may lead to anemia, and the blood may not always be visible or noticeable in the stool. In fact, the ACS says, a blood test that reveals a low red blood cell count is sometimes the first sign of a colorectal cancer.
- Changes when you go to the bathroom
Changes in bowel movements or urine can be signs of a few different cancers.
Blood in the stool can signify stomach cancer or colorectal cancers. Other changes in bowel movements, like diarrhea or constipation that last more than a few days, can also be signs of colorectal cancer, the ACS explains.
Bonta said that, in men, blood in the urine, needing to pee freqeuntly at night, sudden urges to urinate, or a weak stream of urine could indicate prostate cancer.
In women, urinary frequency and urgency can be signs of ovarian cancer, according to the ACS.
And in all people, certain urinary changes may also be symptoms of kidney and bladder cancers, the ACS says. So it pays to be alert and notice when there’s a long-lasting change in your normal bathroom habits.
Remember: Don’t panic.
Not every symptom indicates cancer, and not every symptom warrants a battery of tests. Both Meyers and Bonta stressed that unnecessary testing can actually be harmful.
“The financial costs and psychological costs can be very high,” Bonta said. “Talk to any patient who ever had a biopsy about what you’re going through psychologically while you’re waiting for it and while you’re having it.”