After cardiovascular diseases, cancer causes the most death in humans. Cancer is characterized by development of abnormal cells that have the capacity to divide uncontrollably and invade and destroy normal cells of the body. Cancer can be cured when it is diagnosed in early stages. Hence, it is imperative to recognize the early signs and symptoms of cancer.
What Are the Signs of Cancer?
Cancer can cause various types of symptoms or signs, depending on the location of the cancer, its size and how it affects the tissues or organs. A metastatic cancer that has spread to distant body parts may produce signs in different areas of the body.
General Symptoms of Cancer
- Unexplained loss of weight: Majority of the persons suffering from cancer will lose weight during the course of their disease. An unexplained loss of weight of 10 pounds or greater may present as an initial symptom of cancer. This symptom is most commonly present with cancers of the stomach, pancreas, lungs or esophagus.
- Fever: Fever is a common symptom of cancer, but it is more common in cancers that have metastasized. Fever occurs as the immune system may be compromised due to the cancer in the later stages or the treatment of cancer. Fever may be an initial presenting sign of certain cancers such as blood cancers (lymphoma or leukemia).
- Fatigue: Fatigue is one of the important signs of cancer as it grows and spreads. However, it may be present in the initial stages in certain cancers such as leukemia. Cancer of stomach or colon may result in occult blood losswhich may cause fatigue.
- Pain: Some cancers such as testicular cancer and bone cancer may have pain as an early symptom. A brain tumor may produce headache that does not go away with treatment. Cancers of rectum, colon or ovary may present symptomof back pain. Most often, pain occurs when cancer has already metastasized from its place of origin.
- Changes on the skin: Apart from skin cancers, certain other cancers may produce skin changes. These changes on the skin include:
- Hyperpigmentation (darkening of the skin)
- Jaundice (yellowish appearance of white of eyes and skin)
- Reddening of skin
- Excessive growth of hair
Symptoms and Signs of Certain Cancers
- Change in bladder function or bowel habits: Long-term diarrhea, constipation or a sudden change in the size of stool can indicate colon cancer. Pain during urination, presence of blood in urine or change in function of bladder (such as increased or decreased frequency of urination) may indicate prostate or bladder cancer.
- Sores that do not get better: Cancers of skin may cause bleeding and look very much like sores that do not get better. An oral cancer may present as a non-healing sore inside the mouth, especially in individuals who chew tobacco, smoke or drink alcohol regularly. Sores present inside the vagina or on the penis may indicate an infection or early cancer and you should seek immediate medical attention.
- White spots present on the tongue or inside the mouth: White spots or patches on the tongue or anywhere else inside the mouth may be leukoplakia which is a precancerous condition due to frequent irritation by smoking or chewing tobacco. Leukoplakia can convert into mouth cancer if treatment is not done in time. Any changes in the mouth that last for a long duration should be checked by a dentist.
- Unusual discharge or bleeding: Unusual bleeding may occur either in early stages or in advanced stages of cancer. Blood in sputum may indicate lung cancer. Rectal or colon cancer may present as presence of blood in stool (stool may look black or very dark in color). Abnormal vaginal bleeding may indicate cancer of the endometrium or cervix. Presence of blood in urine may indicate kidney or bladder cancer. Discharge of blood from the nipple may indicate breast cancer. All these signs of cancer should be immediately reported to your physician.
- Lump or thickening in breast or other body parts: A thickening or lump can indicate early or advanced cancer and should be immediately reported to a physician. The lump may be present in the testicle, breast, lymph nodes or other soft tissues of the body.
- Trouble swallowing or indigestion: Swallowing problems or indigestion may indicate cancer of the stomach, esophagus or pharynx.
- Recent changes in a mole or wart or any other skin change: If you notice any changes in the size, shape or color of a mole, wart or freckle or if their border becomes irregular, then you should get them checked by your physician immediately. Any other changes in skin should also be reported. A change in skin may indicate a melanoma, which if diagnosed early can be successfully treated.
- Hoarseness or nagging cough: Lung cancer may present as a nagging cough, whereas hoarseness may indicate a cancer of the thyroid gland or larynx.
When to Visit a Physician?
Visit your physician if you have any signs of cancer mentioned above persistently.
If there are no symptoms of cancer present but still you are worried regarding your risk of developing cancer, see your doctor and discuss your concern. Enquire about the screening procedures and tests for cancer that are recommended for you.
How Is Cancer Diagnosed?
Cancer screening: According to studies, for certain cancers, screening tests are helpful in diagnosing and treating the cancer in its early stages and saving lives. Various patient-advocacy groups and medical organizations have guidelines and recommendations for screening of cancer. Review the guidelines with your physician to determine the best options available on the basis of your own cancer risk factors.
Cancer may be diagnosed using one or more of the following approaches:
- Physical exam: Your physician may conduct a thorough physician exam and look for any abnormalities that may present as the signs of any cancer.
- Laboratory tests: Lab tests including blood and urine tests may help your physician identify problems caused by cancer.
- Imaging tests: Imaging tests such as CT scan, MRI, bone scan, PET scan, X-ray and ultrasound may help your physician examine your internal organs and bones in a noninvasive way.
- Biopsy: During biopsy, a sample of cells is collected for testing in the lab. A tissue sample may be collected using several ways. The type of biopsy procedure to be used depends upon the type of cancer present and its location. In majority of the cases, the only method to definitively diagnose a cancer is a biopsy. In the lab, the samples of the cells are viewed under a microscope by the pathologists.