Cancer is a broad term that encompasses over one hundred different types of cancer. Although each type has its own set of characteristics, there are some cancer symptoms that occur in many types of cancer. It is important to note that some types of cancer do not present any symptoms until they are in advanced stages. This is why cancer screening and risk assessment are vital for cancer prevention and early detection. A broad spectrum of non-specific cancer symptoms may include:
Persistent Fatigue: Fatigue is one of the most commonly experienced cancer symptoms. It is usually more common when the cancer is advanced, but still occurs in the early stages of some cancers. Anemia is commonly the culprit — a condition that is associated with many types of cancer, especially types affecting the bowel. Fatigue is a symptom of both malignant and non-malignant conditions and should be evaluated by a physician.
Unintentional Weight Loss: While it may be a welcome surprise to lose weight without trying, it can be a red flag for many illnesses, including cancer. Losing 10 pounds or more unintentionally definitely warrants a visit to the doctor. This type of weight loss can occur with or without loss of appetite. Remember, weight loss can be a symptom of cancer, but is also a symptom of many other illnesses, too.
Pain: Typically, pain is not an early symptom of cancer, except in some cancer types like those that spread to the bone. Pain generally occurs when cancer spreads and begins to affect other organs and nerves. Lower pack pain is cancer symptom that is associated with ovarian cancer and colon cancer. Shoulder pain can also be a symptom of lung cancer. Pain in the form of headaches can be associated with brain tumors (malignant and benign). Stomach pains can be related to types of cancer, like stomach cancer, pancreatic cancer, and many others. Stomach pain can be a very vague symptom because so many illnesses can cause stomach pain.
Fever: A fever is a very non-specific symptom of many mild to severe conditions, including cancer. In relation to cancer, a fever that is persistent or one that comes and goes frequently can signal stress on the immune system. Fevers are commonly associated with types of cancer that affects the blood, like leukemia and lymphoma, but are also common in people whose cancer has spread.
Bowel Changes: If you experience constipation, diarrhea, blood in the stools, gas, thinner stools, or just a general overall change in bowel habits, see your doctor. These symptoms are most commonly associated with colon cancer, but are also related to other cancer types.
Chronic Cough: A persistent, new cough or a cough that won’t go away or becomes worse needs to be evaluated by a doctor. Blood and/or mucus may accompany the cough and can be caused many conditions. In relation to cancer, a chronic cough with blood or mucus can be symptom of lung cancer.
Keep in mind that these are very general, vague symptoms of cancer. If you have one or two of these symptoms, it is not a red flag for cancer but more an indication to your doctor to run certain medical tests. The symptoms listed above are experienced by most people with cancer at various stages of their disease, but are also linked to many other non-cancerous conditions. For more specific cancer symptoms, see below for symptom information about several types of cancer. You may also get a better understanding of what your symptoms may mean by using the About.com Symptom Checker, an interactive health education tool.