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Cancer symptoms

Cancer symptoms will vary according to the type of cancer and how far the cancer has grown. There are some symptoms that are common to many cancers.

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What are cancer symptoms?

Cancer symptoms will vary according to the type of cancer and how far the cancer has grown. There are some symptoms that are common to many cancers and are the result of the increased cell turnover. These include:

  • Weight loss - in severe cases there can be both loss of fat and muscle, leading to a wasting condition called cachexia.

  • Loss of appetite.

  • Pale skin and paleness of the inside of the lower eyelid, a low blood count (anaemia).

Other cancer symptoms you may be asked about include:

  • Any visible loss of blood.

  • Any unexplained lumps or bumps.

You may also be asked about more specific features, depending on which underlying cancer is suspected such as:

  • Breast cancer: breast lump, nipple discharge, change in skin.

  • Bowel cancer: blood in stools or after passing stool, pain in rectum.

  • Lung cancer: persistent cough, blood in sputum (haemoptysis), chest pain.

  • Brain cancer: unexplained headaches; headache present on waking, feeling sick (nausea), being sick (vomiting), abnormal sensations or weakness in the limbs.

Cancer findings on examination

Features on examination may also help determine if cancer is present and if so where it is. This may include the following:

  • Features of excessive weight loss.

  • Evidence of anaemia - pale skin and pallor inside the lower eyelid.

  • Any enlarged lymph nodes such as in the neck or under the armpits. The cancer cells will have a blood supply and toxins will pass into the veins and also the lymph channels. This toxic product can then build up and lead to enlargement of the lymph nodes.

  • Raised temperature (fever) - some cancers can lead to high fever (for example, lymphoma).

  • Enlargement of the liver which is knobbly in nature and may be the result of cancer spreading to the liver (metastases).

  • Lump (from the cancer) - for example, in the breast in breast cancer or in the abdomen in bowel cancer.

It is important to note that often there may be nonspecific symptoms or even no symptoms. If you are worried, you should see your healthcare physician and discuss your symptoms further.

Further reading and references

  • What is Cancer?; National Cancer Institute
  • Koo MM, Swann R, McPhail S, et al; Presenting symptoms of cancer and stage at diagnosis: evidence from a cross-sectional, population-based study. Lancet Oncol. 2020 Jan;21(1):73-79. doi: 10.1016/S1470-2045(19)30595-9. Epub 2019 Nov 6.
  • Kwekkeboom KL; Cancer Symptom Cluster Management. Semin Oncol Nurs. 2016 Nov;32(4):373-382. doi: 10.1016/j.soncn.2016.08.004. Epub 2016 Oct 24.

Article history

The information on this page is written and peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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