Early Warning Signs of Cancer

Woman with cancer sitting on couch with a mug
FatCamera/Getty Images

It's important to be aware of the early warning signs of cancer—such as bruising easily, blood in the urine, or fatigue—so that if you are diagnosed with cancer, you can receive treatment as soon as possible. However, while experiencing these symptoms can be frightening, it's important to keep in mind that many of them are also common signs of less serious conditions, such as an infection, an autoimmune disease, or an allergy.

Is It Cancer or Something Else?

Here's a look at some of the many symptoms that can indicate cancer, but may also indicate another disease or condition. If you experience any of these, don't delay seeing your doctor. The sooner you find out exactly what is causing your symptoms, the sooner you will be able to get the appropriate treatment.

  • Bladder and kidney cancer: You may see blood in your urine, have pain or burning upon urinating, or need to urinate more frequently. Other possible conditions caused by these symptoms include urinary tract infections and interstitial cystitis.
  • Breast cancer: Symptoms often include a lump or thickening in the breast, or itching, redness, or soreness of the nipples not caused by pregnancy, breastfeeding, or menstruation. It's important to note, however, that not all breast lumps are cancerous.
  • Cervical, endometrial, and uterine cancers: Bleeding between menstrual cycles, any unusual discharge, painful menstruation, and heavy periods. These symptoms can also be caused by endometriosis or uterine fibroids.
  • Colon cancer: Rectal bleeding, blood in the stool or changes in bowel habits such as persistent diarrhea and/or constipation are warning signs which should be investigated promptly. These symptoms could also be the result of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). 
  • Laryngeal cancer: A persistent cough or hoarse-sounding voice are possible signs. Vocal changes can also be caused by polyps or hypothyroidism.
  • Leukemia: Paleness, fatigue, weight loss, repeated infections, nosebleeds, bone or joint pain, and easy bruising are possible warning signs of leukemia.
  • Lung cancer: A persistent cough, sputum with blood, a heavy feeling in the chest, or chest pain can indicate lung cancer. It may also indicate pneumonia.
  • Lymphoma: Enlarged, rubbery lymph nodes, itchy skin, night sweats, unexplained fever, and weight loss can be signs of lymphoma.
  • Mouth and throat cancer: Any chronic ulcer (sore) of the mouth, tongue, or throat which doesn't heal, or white areas in the mouth, should be seen by your physician. White spots and sores can also be canker sores, which can be caused by a weak immune system, stress, oral trauma, or IBD.
  • Ovarian cancer: Unfortunately, there are often no symptoms of ovarian cancer until the disease is in its later stages. When it does present symptoms, these can include weight loss, fatigue, bloating, and abdominal pain.
  • Pancreatic cancer: There usually are no symptoms until this cancer has progressed to the later stages, when you may notice jaundiced skin, itching, or pain deep in the stomach or back.
  • Skin cancer: This type of cancer typically presents with moles that change color, size, or appearance, or flat sores (lesions that look like moles), a tumor or lump under the skin that resembles a wart, or ulceration that never heals.
  • Stomach cancer: Vomiting blood or experiencing frequent indigestion and pain after eating, or weight loss may indicate stomach cancer. These can also be signs of a stomach ulcer.

Cancer Prevention Tips

If cancer runs in your family, or you have a condition that makes you more likely to develop a certain type of cancer, then it's especially important to be mindful of your risk factors. Being proactive and making healthy life choices can help you lower your risk of developing cancer. Some steps you can take include:

  • Exercising regularly: Research has shown that moderate regular exercise can reduce your cancer risk by at least 30 percent. Aim for 30 minutes a day.
  • Eating a healthy well-balanced diet: A low-sugar, high-fiber diet with little or no red meat and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables is ideal. You can have fats, just make sure that are the healthy kinds (such as olive oil).
  • Quitting smoking: Smoking cigarettes can increase your cancer risk by 30 percent.
  • Limiting your alcohol intake: One drink a day has been found to reduce some health risks, including significantly reducing the risk of heart disease. However, too much alcohol may increase your risk of breast cancer. (The combination of smoking and drinking excessively has proven to significantly increase the risk of oral cancer, esophageal cancer, and other cancers.)
  • Staying on top of gynecological examinations: This includes Pap smears and mammograms. The Pap smear is the only screening tool for cancer which has reduced the number of deaths from cervical cancer. 
  • Getting regular mammograms: A baseline mammogram should be performed in women at the age of 40; after that, an annual or biannual mammogram is recommended.
  • Perform monthly breast self-exams: Catching a lump early can improve your odds of catching cancer in its early, less deadly stages.
  • Use sunscreen: Use an SPF of 15 or higher anytime you're outdoors and avoid being outdoors during the middle of the day when the sun is at its strongest.
  • Practice safe sex: Always use a condom unless you are in a long-term monogamous relationship. The human papillomavirus (HPV) can be sexually transmitted and is associated with cervical cancer.

A Word From Verywell

Lifestyle measures and regular screenings can go a long way toward preventing cancer. Some people, however, are at higher risk of developing certain cancers due to genetics. If several of your family members have had a specific type of cancer, talk to your doctor about genetic testing. Genes for breast cancer and ovarian cancer can be identified; in some cases, measures can be taken to minimize, or even eliminate, the risk of developing these cancers.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources