Cancer Symptoms

This text is related to the most common symptoms of malignant diseases. The problem is that there exist practically no symptoms exclusive only to cancers. Tumor symptoms are present in other pathological conditions including banal diseases and so there must be a cautious approach when the presence of below mentioned symptoms is long-lasting or simultaneous.


Symptoms of cancer can be divided into general and local. Local signs are related to damage of organs and tissue by tumor growth and the general symptoms are associated with tumor spread and metastatic process. The whole issue is described in a general text dedicated to cancers.

Weight loss

Unintentional weight loss is a dangerous symptom that occurs also in many non-malignant conditions. Very suspicious is the loss of about 10% of weight in less than 6 months. Weight loss is usually due to widespread tumor process. Tumor consumes nutrients but the fundamental problem is the systemic inflammatory response of the body, which causes general catabolism. Loss of appetite and weight loss can not be reversed despite proper nutrition. In addition to fat tissue depletion, there is a significant loss of muscle tissue.

Night sweats and fever

Both symptoms may be related to a widespread tumor process that causes a general inflammatory response of patient's body. The fever is usually between 37-37.9°C. Night sweats may accompany virtually any tumor but it is a typical sign of “blood tumors” such as leukemias and lymphomas.

Enlarged lymph nodes

Painless swelling of lymph nodes is a symptom that needs to be very cautiously investigated. It may be present in essentially any tumor that spreads into lymph nodes but overall lymphadenopathy is typical for “blood cancers” such as leukemias and lymphomas.


Feeling of general fatigue is often present in cancer diseases. Unfortunately, this is so subjective and non-specific symptom that is not very useful in diagnostics.

Cough and hoarseness

Every patient with chronic cough, i.e. cough lasting more than three weeks, should be investigated at least by a chest X-ray. When the patient is a smoker, chronic cough is rather a normal sign of chronic bronchitis and we should be more interested in change of the nature of cough or blood expectoration. It is the same with prolonged hoarseness when we should perform the chest X-ray together with an otolaryngological examination.


Sudden jaundice in children, teenagers and young adults usually means an acute viral hepatitis or a gallstone complication (when related to colic pain in upper right abdominal quadrant). A sudden painless jaundice in older person is a very serous symptom that is present in cancers locally obstructing the bile duct.


Hemoglobin and red blood cells deficiency can accompany virtually any tumor. Our body tries to prevent the tumor growth and hides iron within cells (iron is important for tumor growth) However, iron is also important for red blood cells development and its deficiency causes anemia. In addition, some tumors may cause anemia by chronic bleeding, especially colorectal cancer (blood in stool), kidney cancer (blood in urine) and endometrial cancer (gynecological bleeding).


Any finding of bleeding with an unclear cause should be further examined, particularly blood in stool, blood in urine, coughing up blood, gynecological bleeding, etc.

Headache and epileptic seizures

These symptoms may occur in primary brain tumors and brain metastases of other tumors. Primary brain tumors are mostly benign but even a benign brain tumor can kill the patient by intracranial hypertension and compression of brain tissue. Every person with chronic recurrent headache should be examined by a neurologist as well as a person that has experienced an epileptic seizure. Imaging methods such as brain computed tomography or magnetic resonance imaging have great importance in diagnostics.

Lump in the breast

Finding a lump in breast is usually nothing serious but it may be a possible sign of breast cancer. Modern therapy of breast cancer is very effective in developed countries. Of course, the earlier is the detection, the more successful is the treatment.

Alternating diarrhea and constipation

This is a typical sign of some types of colon cancer, especially when located in left distal part of the colon.

Abnormal birthmark(s)

Any appearance of new birthmarks or visual changes (shape irregularities, color and size change) of the already present ones can be associated with a very dangerous form of skin cancer known as melanoma. A quick examination by a dermatologist is a very good idea.

Pathological fractures

These are fractures resulting from an inappropriately weak force. They are most usually caused by secondary bone metastases of other tumors and more rarely by primary bone cancers. Bone metastases are also often related to bone pain.

Jiri Stefanek, MD  Author of texts: Jiri Stefanek, MD
 Sources: basic text sources