What Are the Early Signs of Cancer?

The early signs of cancer are often nonspecific, and most people don’t present with obvious symptoms until it has progressed to later stages, making early diagnosis difficult.

The earliest stage of cancer is referred to as stage 1, and presents with a smaller tumor that has not yet grown deeply into nearby tissues or the lymph nodes. Stage 2 refers to tumors that have become larger and the cancer has grown more deeply into nearby tissues. When cancer spreads to the lymph nodes, it is categorized as stage 3. Stage 4, also known as metastatic or advanced cancer, defines cancer that has spread to other organs. 

Although many cancers share commonalities, including solid tumors and blood cancers, they each have distinct features and pathways. Knowing your own risk factors for cancer can help you spot the early signs and symptoms.

melanoma cancer cells

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Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is a disease in which the cells of the breast grow out of control. In very rare cases, men can develop breast cancer. Breast cancer is the second most common type of cancer among women, only behind some types of skin cancers. In 2020, there were an estimated 276,480 new cases of breast cancer.

An estimated 63% of breast cancer cases were diagnosed in the early stages when the cancer was localized. Early diagnosis of breast cancer is often made through regular breast cancer screening, which often include a mammogram, breast MRI, and clinical breast exam. Women are also encouraged to perform breast self-exams and report any lumps, pain, and changes to their doctor.

The early signs of breast cancer can include:

  • Swelling of all or part of a breast (even if no lump is felt)
  • Skin dimpling (sometimes looking like an orange peel)
  • Breast or nipple pain
  • Nipple retraction (turning inward)
  • Nipple or breast skin that is red, dry, flaking, or thickened
  • Nipple discharge (other than breast milk)
  • Swollen lymph nodes

What a Breast Cancer Lump Feels Like

It may be difficult to feel a tumor that is less than half an inch in diameter, but any above that size will be easy to identify when touched. In early cases, the lump or mass will likely feel different than the tissue surrounding it and be moveable. If you notice a change or mass in your breasts, schedule an examination with your doctor.

Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths globally.  It is estimated that roughly 228,820 people were diagnosed with lung cancer in 2020, accounting for 12.7% of all new cancer cases. Over 50% of people with lung cancer are not diagnosed until the cancer has metastasized, making the survival rate low at 20.5%. Early diagnosis of lung cancer accounts for only 17% of all lung cancer cases. 

Many people often ignore typical symptoms of lung cancer because they can seem like repercussions from smoking or signs of a lung infection. Early symptoms of lung cancer include:

  • A chronic cough that lasts for at least eight weeks
  • Frequent and recurring respiratory infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia 
  • Coughing up blood or bloody mucus, even in small amounts 
  • Difficulty breathing and shortness of breath 
  • A hoarse or raspy voice
  • Pain in the chest 

Prostate Cancer

Prostate cancer affected an estimated 191,930 people in 2020. These cases make up 10.6% of all new cancer cases. Roughly 76% of all cases are diagnosed in the early or localized stage. This can be attributed to proper and effective screening for prostate cancer. Early warning signs of prostate cancer include:

  • Pain or burning during urination or ejaculation
  • Frequent urination, particularly at night 
  • Having a hard time stopping or starting urination
  • Sudden onset of erectile dysfunction
  • Blood in either the semen or urine 

Prostate Cancer Screening Recommendations

Since prostate cancer that's diagnosed early has a five-year survival rate of 100%, getting proper screening is important. The American Cancer Society recommends that men over 50 with average risk and men over 40 with a high risk of developing prostate cancer should get screened regularly for prostate cancer. Risk factors of prostate cancer include:

  • Age, the majority of cases are found in men over 40
  • African-American men tend to be at higher risk
  • Geographical location, because those in North America, northwestern Europe, Australia, and the Caribbean islands are at higher risk
  • Family history of prostate cancer

Colorectal Cancer

Colorectal cancer is more likely to occur in people over the age of 50. There were roughly 147,950 new cases of colorectal cancer in 2020, accounting for 9.2% of all new cancers. Early detection generally occurs at a rate of 38%, with the majority of colorectal cancers being diagnosed after the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes.

In recent years, colorectal cancer death rates have dropped because the colorectal polyps found during screenings are less likely to develop into cancer if removed promptly. Early signs of colorectal cancer include:

  • Changes in bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation, or stool narrowing that lasts more than a few days
  • Feeling like you need to have a bowel movement and finding no relief from the feeling afterward
  • Bright red rectal bleeding or blood in the stool
  • Abdominal pain or cramping
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Unintended weight loss

Melanoma

Melanoma makes up roughly 1% of all skin cancers, but is the cause of the majority of skin cancer deaths. In 2020, there were 100,350 new cases of melanoma, making up 5.6% of all new cancers. The majority of melanoma cases, roughly 83%, are diagnosed in the early stages.

The five-year relative survival rate of melanoma cases that were detected early is high at 99%. Early symptoms to watch out for include:

  • A new spot on the skin or a spot that is changing in size, shape, or color, according to the ABCDE rule
  • A sore that doesn’t heal
  • Spread of pigment from the border of a spot into the surrounding skin
  • Redness or a new swelling beyond the border of the mole
  • Change in sensation, such as itchiness, tenderness, or pain
  • Change in the surface of a mole, like scaliness, oozing, bleeding, or the appearance of a lump or bump

Callout:

The ABCDE Rule

The ABCDE rule is a great tool for keeping track of moles and spots on the body that may be melanoma. When examining your body, look out for:


  • Asymmetry: If a mole or birthmark is not even or one side does not match the other
  • Border: Irregular, ragged, or blurred borders can sometimes be a sign of melanoma
  • Color: Changes in color or a spot that is more than one color with different shades of brown or black, or has patches of pink, blue, red, or white
  • Diameter: If the spot has a diameter larger than a pencil eraser, it should be examined further
  • Evolving: If the spot or mole changes in shape, color, or size

Bladder Cancer

Since the early signs of bladder cancer are quite obvious, early detection can be easier than in other types of cancer. It is estimated that in 2020, there were 81,400 new cases of bladder cancer, accounting for 4.5% of all new cancer cases.

The early signs and symptoms of bladder cancer include:

  • Blood in the urine
  • Urinating more than usual
  • A painful or burning sensation while urinating
  • Increased urgency in the need to urinate even when your bladder isn't full
  • Having difficulty urinating or having a weak urine stream
  • Having to get up many times during the night to urinate

Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma originates in the lymphatic system. In 2020, there were an estimated 77,240 new cases of the disease. Roughly 25% of non-Hodgkin lymphoma cases are diagnosed in the early stages, and when that happens, the five-year relative survival rate is as high as 83.5%.

Early signs of non-Hodgkin lymphoma include:

  • The enlargement of one or more lymph nodes, causing a lump or bump under the skin
  • Fever
  • Chills 
  • Night sweats 
  • Weight loss 
  • Feeling tired or fatigued
  • Swelling in the abdomen

Since most of these symptoms and signs are nonspecific in nature, knowing your risk factors can also inform you how often you need screening for this type of cancer.

Kidney Cancer

Kidney cancer is hard to diagnose in the early stages because it's difficult to feel small tumors during a physical exam. It is often caught on X-ray or ultrasound conducted for another reason. There were an estimated 73,750 new cases of kidney cancer documented in 2020, with the five-year relative survival rate being 75.2%. The 5-year relative survival rate jumps to 92.6% for cases diagnosed early.

The early symptoms of kidney cancer are:

  • Persistent low back pain or pressure on one side
  • A lump or mass on the side or low back 
  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss and a loss of appetite 
  • A fever that will not go away and is not caused by infection 
  • Low red blood cell count, also known as anemia 
  • Swelling of the legs and ankles 
  • In men with kidney cancer, a varicocele or cluster of enlarged veins can be found around a testicle, most typically the right testicle

Endometrial/Uterine Cancer

Endometrial or uterine cancer affects the uterus. In 2020, there were 65,620 newly diagnosed cases, making up 3.6% of the total cancer cases. The majority of endometrial and uterine cancers are diagnosed in the early stages, accounting for 67% of all cases. Early signs of endometrial cancer include: 

  • Vaginal bleeding after menopause
  • Bleeding between periods
  • Pelvic pain

Risk Factors for Uterine Cancer

Although the symptoms of endometrial cancer present early, they can be nonspecific and may mimic those of other less serious health conditions. This is why it’s important to know the risk factors associated with the disease. The risk factors of uterine cancer are:

  • Things that affect hormone levels, like taking estrogen after menopause, birth control pills, or tamoxifen; the number of menstrual cycles; pregnancy; certain ovarian tumors; and polycystic ovarian syndrome
  • Use of an IUD
  • Age
  • Obesity
  • Diet and exercise
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Family history of endometrial or colorectal cancer
  • A history of breast or ovarian cancer
  • A history of endometrial hyperplasia
  • Treatment with radiation therapy to the pelvis to treat another cancer

Leukemia

Leukemia is a type of blood cancer that affects developing blood cells. It is estimated that there were 60,530 new cases of leukemia in 2020, accounting for 3.4% of all new cancer cases. Since many people do not experience symptoms or the symptoms develop over a long period of time, early diagnosis of leukemia is rare.

Certain signs of leukemia could alert a person to be tested, including:

  • Fever and chills
  • General fatigue and weakness 
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Night sweats 
  • Abdominal discomfort 
  • Headaches 
  • Shortness of breath
  • Frequent infections
  • Petechiae (small red spots under the skin)
  • Anemia (low red blood cell count)
  • Leukopenia (low white blood cell count)
  • Thrombocytopenia (low blood platelet count) 
  • Swollen lymph nodes 
  • An enlarged liver or spleen 

Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreatic cancer affected an estimated 57,600 people in 2020, making up 3.2% of the total new cancer cases. Early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is vital when it comes to survival because the five-year relative survival rate is low at only 10% for all cases. Early diagnosis raises the five-year survival rate to 39.4%.

Similar to the kidney, the pancreas is located deep within the body, making early detection of small tumors extremely difficult. Early signs of pancreatic cancer include:

  • Dark-colored urine 
  • Itchy skin 
  • Digestive problems that could include abnormal stools, nausea, and vomiting
  • Pain in the upper abdomen that may extend to the back 
  • Loss of appetite 
  • A swollen gallbladder
  • Blood clots

Thyroid Cancer

Thyroid cancer affected roughly 52,890 people in 2020, accounting for 2.9% of total cancer cases. About 67% of all thyroid cancer cases are diagnosed in the early stages.

Not every case of thyroid cancer will present with the same symptoms, but they can include:

  • Fatigue 
  • Hoarseness 
  • Swollen glands in the neck 
  • A persistent cough that is not caused by a cold 
  • Neck pain that starts in the front of the neck. In some cases, the pain may extend all the way to the ears.
  • Voice changes that do not go away 
  • Difficulty breathing or feeling like you’re breathing through a straw 
  • Trouble swallowing 

What Does a Thyroid Lump Look and Feel Like?

Thyroid lumps are generally painless and more firm than the gland itself, so if there is any tenderness or pain with a firm nodule, it’s important to get it checked right away. The thyroid lump can be seen if it is large in size, but typically you cannot see them. Checking for thyroid lumps at home can be easy to do. You can check by:

  • Sitting or standing straight up with your neck muscles relaxed
  • Move your head back and swallow
  • While you swallow, take your hand and feel the base of your neck below the throat and above your collarbone for any lumps, nodules, or asymmetry

Liver Cancer

Liver cancer affected 42,810 people in 2020. This number accounts for 2.4% of new cancer cases. The five-year relative survival rate for liver cancer is low at only 19.6%. When it is diagnosed early, the survival rate is a little higher at 34.2%.

Some signs to look out for include:

  • Pain in the right side of the upper abdomen or near the right shoulder blade 
  • An enlarged liver that can be felt as a mass under the ribs on the right side 
  • Bloating or abdominal swelling that develops as a mass 
  • Jaundice (the yellowing of the skin and eyes) 
  • Unintended weight loss 
  • Loss of appetite or feelings of fullness after small meals 
  • Nausea or vomiting that’s not associated with other conditions 
  • Persistent and ongoing general weakness or fatigue 
  • Fever that cannot be attributed to other conditions 
  • An enlarged spleen that can be felt as a mass under the ribs on the left side 

A Word From Verywell

Knowing the early warning signs of cancer can make a huge difference in your odds for survival. Some symptoms are general and nonspecific, which can make it difficult to determine if follow-up testing is needed. There are, however, seven signs of cancer that you should never ignore, including a sore that doesn’t heal or doesn’t stop bleeding, a lump anywhere on the body, unexplained bleeding or discharge from any part of the body, bladder or bowel changes that are persistent in nature, a cough or hoarseness that doesn’t go away, indigestion or difficulty swallowing that doesn’t go away, and any skin changes such as new warts or moles.

Getting screened for cancer is scary, but it is necessary if you have risk factors for specific types of cancer and has a positive long-term impact if cancer is diagnosed.

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Article Sources
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