Cancer – signs and symptoms

Fabian Peters

Cancer - signs and symptoms

New cases of colorectal cancer in Germany have decreased slightly. (Image: psdesign1/

Often the first symptoms of cancer or malignant tumors appear relatively early, but they can also occur in connection with other diseases and are therefore often not recognized as signs of cancer. According to the variety of different forms of cancer, the spectrum of these symptoms is extremely broad. However, some symptoms, such as chronic fatigue or significant weight loss, are seen in many of these forms of cancer, so they are generally considered possible warning signs of cancer.

Increased signs of cancer

To enable a better overview, the multitude of possible cancer signs will be assigned to six groups in the coming section. We distinguish here "unspecific general symptoms", "Complaints in the digestive tract and abdominal cavity", "Respiratory symptoms", "Symptoms in the head area and at the neurological level.", "Signs specific to women with cancer" as well as "Other increased symptoms associated with cancer". The list does not claim to be a complete compilation of all conceivable cancer symptoms, but rather concentrates on the symptoms that are increasingly being noted.

Non-specific cancer symptoms

Many cancer symptoms can also be observed in harmless other diseases, so that they are often not associated with a possible cancer disease by the affected persons. These rather unspecific cancer signs often occur in very early cancer stages. If they are interpreted correctly and diagnosed at an early stage, there is often a relatively good chance of treatment. Unspecific warning signs include a marked reduction in performance or a persistent feeling of weakness and chronic fatigue, for example. They occur as accompanying symptoms in a whole range of cancer diseases. Examples range from bone marrow cancer (multiple myeloma), colorectal cancer, kidney cancer, leukemias (blood cancers) and ovarian cancer (ovarian carcinoma) to Hodgkin’s lymphoma or even late-stage breast cancer.

(Image: psdesign1/

Digestive symptoms can be an indication of colorectal cancer, but in most cases they are due to other causes. (Image: psdesign1/

Just because someone is increasingly tired and their performance is reduced, however, does not necessarily mean that they have cancer. In case of doubt, however, a visit to the doctor can do no harm, especially since other possible causes of the symptoms can also be checked. This applies in a similar way to a significant weight loss that is not due to a diet. This is also more common in bone marrow cancer, colorectal cancer (especially small bowel cancer and duodenal tumors), kidney cancer, leukemia, and Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Other examples of cancers that may be associated with significant weight loss are carcinomas of the gallbladder (gallbladder carcinoma / bile duct carcinoma), pancreas (pancreatic head carcinoma) or liver (hepatocellular carcinoma), as well as esophageal cancer and malignant tumors of the pleura (pleural mesothelioma). Often, weight loss is also associated with a persistent loss of appetite in those affected.

If reduced performance, fatigue and weight loss are observed at the same time, a visit to the doctor is urgently recommended. This applies all the more if other symptoms such as night sweats or fever are also present. They can occur, for example, in gallbladder carcinomas or bile duct carcinomas, leukemias, Hodgkin’s lymphomas and kidney cancer. Bronchial carcinoma (lung cancer) is also frequently accompanied by fever.

A non-specific accompanying symptom that can also be found in several different cancers is unpleasant itching of the skin. This also occurs more frequently with gallbladder carcinomas and bile duct carcinomas, leukemia and Hodgkin’s lymphomas.

Swelling of the lymph nodes can occur as a non-specific sign of cancer, which can be observed, for example, in leukemia, thyroid cancer or nasopharyngeal carcinoma. In addition, many affected persons show a generally increased susceptibility to infection, which is often not initially associated with a possible cancer.

The more of the above-mentioned non-specific symptoms occur at the same time, the higher the likelihood that a cancer is actually the trigger. However, here too there are a number of other conceivable causes for the complaints, which must be examined by a doctor.

Complaints in the digestive tract and abdominal cavity

The possible cancer symptoms in the digestive tract are extremely comprehensive and in many cases resemble those of a simple gastrointestinal infection. Thus, the affected persons do not usually think of a cancer disease. Especially if the symptoms persist for an unusually long time and/or are accompanied by the above-mentioned non-specific general symptoms, they should urgently consult a doctor.

Swallowing problems or dysphagia, for example, are more common in cancer of the larynx, esophagus, stomach, and in the late stages of thyroid cancer. Nausea and vomiting are common symptoms of cancer of the esophagus and stomach, as well as duodenal, gallbladder and bile duct. Pain is also often part of the symptoms, although the localization may vary depending on the different forms of cancer.

Abdominal pain is a possible sign of stomach cancer (especially if accompanied by gastric pressure), duodenal carcinoma, and cancers of the gallbladder or bile ducts. Colorectal cancer is also often accompanied by cramping abdominal pain. Abdominal pain radiating into the back is more common with pancreatic cancer, for example. Kidney cancer and bladder cancer, on the other hand, are more likely to cause flank pain. A pressure pain in the right upper abdomen can be observed in cancer of the liver – in the late stage, so-called ascites (abdominal dropsy) is often added here.

Finally, those affected should exercise particular caution with all forms of unusual, recurring pain and have it clarified by a doctor at an early stage, as it may be associated with the growth of a malignant tumor.

Digestive complaints such as diarrhea, constipation, flatulence, urinary retention or other disturbances in micturition and bowel movements can also be possible signs of cancer.

Corresponding impairments are increasingly observed, for example, in connection with colorectal cancer or pancreatic cancer. Furthermore, blood in the urine is a warning signal that should be checked by a doctor as a matter of urgency, since bladder cancer, kidney cancer or ureteral cancer are possible triggers.

Changes in the consistency of the stool (e.g. pencil stool) or the presence of blood residue in the stool are also possible signs of cancer. They can, for example, be associated with colorectal cancer or anal canal carcinoma.

Respiratory symptoms

A chronic cough, not infrequently in the form of coughing up blood (hemoptysis), is a particularly conspicuous warning signal in the case of cancer of the respiratory tract. However, in the case of bronchial carcinoma, this usually only becomes apparent in the extremely advanced course of the disease. Chronic coughing without blood is also observed in pleural mesothelioma (tumor of the pleura). In addition, both lung cancer and pleural mesothelioma are accompanied by pronounced shortness of breath. This can also occur in the late stages of laryngeal cancer and nasopharyngeal cancer. In the latter two forms of cancer, hoarseness is also a frequently observed accompanying symptom.

In addition, increased nosebleeds are a conspicuous warning signal in the case of nasopharyngeal carcinomas. Lung cancer often causes considerable pain in the chest. If a combination of shortness of breath, chest pain and persistent coughing – in the worst case even coughing up blood – is observed, a specialist should be consulted immediately, as even if there is no cancer, extremely serious illnesses (e.g. tuberculosis) may be behind the symptoms.

Cancer symptoms in the head area

Headache is a possible warning signal, especially in the case of tumors directly in the brain (e.g. astrocytoma or glioblastoma), but also in the case of bone marrow cancer. In the case of brain tumors, depending on their localization, further neurological impairments or disturbances of the cranial nerve function can occur. Paralysis, severe headaches, dizziness, drowsiness and even lethargy and changes in personality are possible consequences. Speech, vision and hearing disorders can also be part of the symptoms.

Similar complaints are seen in bone marrow cancer, when the flow of the blood is impaired due to the increased formation of immunoglobulins, so that the microcirculation can no longer be maintained to the necessary extent and a so-called hyperviscosity syndrome develops. Also an uncontrolled eye twitching can be part of the complaint picture here. Another particularly noticeable sign, which may be associated with a brain tumor, are newly occurring epileptic seizures.

Signs of female-specific cancers

Female-specific cancers include, in particular, vaginal carcinomas, vulvar cancer and cervical cancer. It is often accompanied by a conspicuous discharge from the vagina. For example, a bloody discharge is often observed in vaginal and vulvar cancers. Cervical cancer, on the other hand, is more likely to be accompanied by so-called spotting, and genital bleeding can also be observed in ovarian cancer.

In the later stages, vaginal cancer can be accompanied by direct vaginal bleeding, which occurs more frequently after sexual intercourse. In the further course of the disease, a particularly noticeable sign of cervical cancer is usually a sweet-smelling, flesh-colored, watery discharge. In general, abdominal pain in women that is observed independently of the menstrual cycle is a possible warning signal of cancer. Disorders of the menstrual cycle can also indicate cancer here. A medical examination is therefore urgently recommended.

Cancer screening can save lives. Many cancer tumors can be cured at the beginning of their growth. Picture: Dan Race - fotolia

Cancer screening can save lives. Many cancer tumors can be cured at the beginning of growth. (Image: Dan Race/

Other cancer symptoms

In the course of some cancers, anemia develops as a result of internal blood loss, which in turn can cause numerous other symptoms. As a result of the impaired oxygen supply, there is a general drop in performance, often accompanied by chronic fatigue. Headaches, ringing in the ears, visual disturbances and impaired consciousness are also possible consequences of the lack of oxygen. In addition, an increased respiratory rate and palpitations are among the symptoms of anemia. As a sign of cancer, this is increasingly observed in colorectal cancer and duodenal carcinoma, for example.

Another relatively conspicuous cancer symptom is the so-called tumor cachexia, which, however, usually only occurs in the advanced stages of the disease. It is a consequence of the metabolic disorders associated with cancer and is characterized by emaciation or wasting of the patient.

Those affected lose more and more body or, in particular, muscle mass, show increased signs of inflammation and usually develop insulin resistance. Significantly reduced performance and an unfavorable effect on the course of the cancer are the consequences. Tumor cachexia is one of the most common complications of cancers of the digestive tract, such as esophageal cancer, stomach cancer, pancreatic cancer or colon cancer. However, it can also occur in other cancers, such as breast cancer or bronchial carcinoma.

Changes in the appearance of the skin are also possible signs of cancer, whereby this applies not only to newly formed spots and ulcers on the skin, which are possible components of skin cancer, but also to a change in color in the form of so-called jaundice. This occurs when the bilirubin metabolism is permanently disturbed by the cancer and the concentration of bilirubin in the blood serum increases significantly. Not only the skin but also the white of the eye and the mucous membranes subsequently show a yellowish discoloration. Jaundice can occur as an accompanying symptom, for example, in pancreatic cancer, liver cancer, gallbladder and bile duct carcinomas.

Bone pain is a possible sign of cancer, which can be observed in bone marrow cancer but also in metastasis of other forms of cancer (bone metastases). In addition, there are countless other complaints depending on the form of cancer and the localization of the tumors, which, however, are not to be evaluated as general but rather as specific cancer signs.

Act early if there are signs of cancer

Cancer is usually much more treatable if detected at a very early stage of the disease. Therefore, a medical examination should follow as soon as possible when the aforementioned complaints occur. However, the typical cancer symptoms often show up only when the tumors have already reached a certain size.

only regular medical checkups can help here. For example, insured persons in Germany have from the 50. Entitled to regular colorectal cancer screening before the age of 50. For women over 50. Mammography is offered as a breast cancer screening at the age of 50. With the help of the tie, cancer can be detected before the first signs of cancer appear. (fp)

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