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How to spot the signs of cancer

The big ‘C’ can be difficult to think about, and despite big strides in cancer research and treatments, it’s still a concern for most of us. You can give yourself the best chance of avoiding cancer by living a healthy lifestyle with a good, balanced, diet, and plenty of exercise, sleep, and fun. It’s impossible to completely guard against cancer, however, so it’s important to know the signs. Spotting and treating cancer early can make a huge difference to your outcomes.

Spotting the signs of cancer

To start with, it’s really helpful to get to know your body and what is normal for you. Everyone’s bodies are different and they all have their quirks! The key thing is to look for changes to what’s normal for you.

Common signs of cancer to look out for

Unexplained weight loss

It’s normal for your weight to go up and down over time, but if you have quite sudden weight loss without changing your lifestyle, it’s worth seeing your doctor.


If you feel tired and low on energy all the time, or there’s no particular reason for your fatigue, it could mean that something is wrong.

Persistent pain and unexplained aches

Unexplained and persistent aches and pains can be a symptom of lots of different types of cancer. Whilst it’s normal to experience aches and pains as you age, anything that’s persistent or out of the ordinary should be investigated.

Changes in the skin

Cancer can show up in a few different ways on your skin. Keep an eye out for new moles or changes in the colour, size, shape, or texture of a mole or a spot on the skin. If you develop any sores that don’t heal within a week or two, this is a sign to get them checked out. Also, watch out for any changes to your skin or nails that you can’t explain.

Different coloured ribbons that represent different cancers.
Everyone’s bodies are different and they all have their quirks! The key thing is to look for changes to what’s normal for you.

Changes in bowel or bladder habits

See your doctor if you notice that you need to pee or poo more often or more urgently, or if you struggle to go, if it hurts, or if you notice blood in your pee or poo. You might also notice changes to your poo such as the colour or texture, or feel like you still need to go after you’ve just been.

Persistent cough, breathlessness, or hoarseness

If you develop a cough that doesn’t go away after a few weeks or that keeps getting worse, you should see your doctor. Similarly, if you notice you’re feeling breathless more than normal, or if you develop a hoarse voice that doesn’t get better, these can all be signs of cancer that need to be looked at.

Difficulty swallowing or persistent indigestion

Some cancers can cause difficulty swallowing, although there are other medical conditions that can cause this symptom too. Indigestion can also be a common result of eating too much or eating spicy foods, but if it happens a lot or you find that your indigestion is very painful, you should talk to a doctor about it.

Unusual lump or swelling

This is where knowing what is normal for your body can be especially useful. If you notice any new or unusual lumps or swelling anywhere in your body, you should see your doctor. Particularly important areas to check for new and persistent lumps are the neck, chest, stomach, groin, armpit, testicle, and breast. Breast changes to watch out for also include thickening or dimpling of the skin, nipple changes, or discharge.

Unexplained bleeding

Bleeding with no apparent cause should be investigated by your doctor. This might include blood in the stool, urine, or coughing up blood, as well as unusual vaginal bleeding. If it’s a little blood or a lot, or if it’s bright red or a darker brown black, all should be checked out.

Very heavy night sweats

There are lots of different causes for night sweats including infections, medications, or sometimes menopause. However, if you develop an unexplained fever, or very heavy night sweats that leave you waking up drenched in sweat, you should talk to your doctor.

There are so many different types of cancer with lots of different symptoms – this list is just the start! Every person is affected differently too. Some people show obvious signs, and some show little to no signs regardless of how severe or what type of cancer it is. The particular symptoms all depends on how your body responds. Instead of trying to remember every sign, focus on noticing changes and new symptoms that don’t go away. Changes can happen for all sorts of different reasons too, so don’t panic if you spot something out of the ordinary, but do get it checked out by your doctor.

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Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

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