Doctors predict that thousands of deaths could be avoided each year if cancer is diagnosed early on. In fact, survival rates increase by over 70% when certain types of cancer are detected quickly.
Here are the key warning signs that cancer is growing inside your body, including an early symptom you must get checked out.
1. Frequent infection
Possible cancer: leukemia or lymphoma
Cancers that affect your bone marrow frequently show in the form of infection. The marrow begins to produce abnormal white blood cells, which hinder your body’s infection-fighting abilities. Although your body can display an infection anywhere, your mouth, skin, or lungs will often show an infection first.
2. Loss of appetite
Possible cancer: ovarian, stomach, pancreatic, or colon
A lack of appetite and feeling full without eating are key signs of ovarian cancer. Stomach, pancreatic, and colon cancers can also put pressure on your stomach and make you feel too full to eat. Consult with your physician if you notice a change in your appetite that lasts two weeks or longer.
3. Excessive bruising
Possible cancer: leukemia
Finding a bruise following a fall isn’t a reason to worry. But if you notice bruises popping up consistently or in strange places (think hands, fingers, and toes), you may need to check with your doctor. Leukemia cells block red blood cells, hindering their ability to carry oxygen, which leads to blood clotting, according to Cancer Treatment Centers of America.
4. Unexplained weight loss or gain
Possible cancer: liver, esophagus, lungs, pancreas, stomach, or ovarian
According to the ACS, many undiagnosed patients unexpectedly lose 10 or more pounds as the very first sign of cancer. As cancer cells begin to attack healthy ones, your body may respond by losing weight. Weight loss is prominent in cancers of the liver, esophagus, lungs, pancreas, and stomach. Conversely, ovarian cancer patients report unexplained stomach weight gain or bloating.
5. Indigestion and difficulty swallowing
Possible cancer: esophagus, stomach, or throat
Dysphagia, the term for difficulty swallowing, is the most common sign of esophageal cancer. The ACS explains you may be unknowingly adapting to dysphagia and ignoring early signs of throat cancer. “When swallowing becomes harder, people often change their diet and eating habits without realizing it … As the cancer grows larger, the problem can get worse.”
6. Nail changes
Possible cancer: melanoma, liver, or lung
The deadliest type of skin cancer, melanoma, begins in 1% of Caucasian patients and 20% of African-American patients as a brown stripe underneath the nail. Pale or white nails can be a sign of liver cancer. “Clubbing,” the enlargement of the fingers and nails that curve down over the tips, can be a sign of lung cancer.
7. Chronic cough
Possible cancer: lung, neck, or leukemia
A chronic cough or chest pain usually indicates a common infection like bronchitis or sinusitis. If the symptoms persist longer than a month, they could indicate a more serious disease. Leukemia and lung tumor symptoms can mimic a bad cough. If you produce blood in coughed-up mucus, see a doctor immediately. It could be a sign of lung or neck cancer.
8. Skin changes
Possible cancer: skin, adrenal, liver, or pancreatic
Variations in moles and skin pigmentation are most often linked to skin cancer. However, different skin changes can indicate other types of cancer, too. If you notice increased hair growth, you could have adrenal cancer. Pancreatic cancer can manifest in the form of jaundice, or the yellowing of the skin and the whites of your eyes. Jaundice can also indicate liver cancer.
Possible cancer: breast, testicular, or lymph node
Lumps can signal cancer or a swollen gland connected to cancer. Although many are harmless, like a benign cyst, any lumps or glands that are continually swollen for a few weeks should be checked out. One helpful guideline: A tender, movable lump may signify an infection, and a painless lump that’s fixed in place is more likely to be cancer. Regardless, consult your doctor.
Possible cancer: leukemia or lymphoma
Unexplained exhaustion is the most common sign of cancer. Johns Hopkins Medicine explains cancer-related fatigue is different than normal tiredness; it isn’t a result of activity and can’t be fixed by sleep. Tiredness may be related to the blood loss from other cancers like leukemia and lymphoma. According to the American Cancer Society, fatigue is extremely prevalent in leukemia patients.
11. Back pain
Possible cancer: pancreatic, kidney, prostate, or ovarian
Back pain is a broad symptom of cancer. Tumors may grow in the spinal column, weakening or expanding the bone. More likely, however, back pain could result from cancers that manifest in the lower abdomen areas, involving your pancreas, kidney, or reproductive organs.
12. Cramps or a frequent upset stomach
Possible cancer: colon, ovarian, or leukemia
If you’re experiencing cramps or a sick stomach, you may be exhibiting early signs of colorectal cancer. See a doctor if you notice persistent stomach cramps or are suddenly, frequently nauseous. Gas, indigestion, cramping, and unexplained stomach pressure can all signal ovarian cancer, too. Pain and cramping in the pelvis can be linked with leukemia, which enlarges the spleen.
13. Unexplained anemia
Possible cancer: gastrointestinal, urinary tract, vaginal, leukemia, or lymphoma
Bone marrow cancers like leukemia and lymphoma commonly interfere with your body’s ability to make red blood cells and use already-stored iron. This causes anemia and makes you feel tired and weak. Cancers that lead to blood loss like gastrointestinal, urinary tract, cervical, and vaginal cancers can cause bleeding and lead to iron deficiency anemia.
14. Persistent headaches
Possible cancer: brain
Brain cancer isn’t often on people’s radar like other cancers. But experiencing frequent headaches that don’t get better with treatment — as well as clumsiness and muscle weakness — indicates just that. An abnormal growth of cells in the brain, this cancer involves treatment in conjunction with neurologists, oncologists, and neurosurgeons.
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Possible cancer: bone, liver, testicular, uterine, or breast
Unusually heavy, painful periods are a common sign of uterine cancer, and back pain can be an early sign of liver cancer. Many people don’t know that breast cancer can exhibit itself through back pain as well; the tumor may press backward and spread to your spine or ribs.
Cancer with no warning signs
There are a few cancers with no indicators at all. Pancreatic cancer may not show any signs until it has progressed to an advanced stage. Your doctor may recommend regular cancer screenings if you have a family history of the disease.
According to Healthline, despite the warning signs (or lack thereof), it’s impossible to know exactly how an individual might respond to a certain type of cancer, as the symptoms vary.
Reducing your risk
Don’t smoke, wear sunscreen, consume alcohol in moderation — you’ve heard it all before. But there are other habits you can adopt to protect yourself from cancer. Exercise regularly, get consistent cancer screenings, and learn your family history to reduce your risk.