Spotting cancer symptoms – self awareness can help you beat the big C

Posted on: 15 March 2011 by Gareth Hargreaves

Early diagnosis of cancer greatly improves your chance of successful treatment.

Click on the picture below to find out about some of the possible signs and symptoms of cancer. If you notice any of these changes, make an appointment to see your doctor

Click on the picture above to find out about some of the possible signs and symptoms of cancer. If you notice any of these changes, make an appointment to see your doctor

Health awarenessNobody knows your body better than you, so it is important to be mindful of the tell tale signs that could suggest the presence of cancer. Follow our guide for spotting the symptoms, self examination and having the confidence to raise your concerns with a doctor.

More than one in three people will develop some form of cancer in their lifetime. The disease mainly affects older people, with nearly nine out of 10 cases (89%) occurring in people over 50 years old.

The importance of early detection

Many cancer deaths in the UK are preventable; if spotted early enough, the chances of surviving the disease are significantly greater.

Better treatments and improved detection techniques have enabled many more people to beat the disease. Almost 2 out of 3 women with breast cancer now survive their disease beyond 20 years. Similarly, research suggests that if bowel cancer, the second most common cause of cancer death in the UK, is diagnosed at the earliest stage, over 90% of patients will survive their disease for more than five years. This highlights the importance of being aware of changes in your body – and discussing them with your doctor!

A visit to your GP can quickly allay fears and help you get over any discomfort or embarrassment by both accepting and talking about your symptoms. You have nothing to lose; if your doctor does find something out of the ordinary, identifying it early and getting treatment started can make a real difference. 

Cancer signs and symptoms

As a general rule, it’s a good idea to know what’s normal for you and to listen to your body. This will make it easier for you to spot any new changes that could be signs of cancer. If you notice any unusual or persistent changes, it’s worth getting checked out. For further information relating to cancer symptoms visit Cancer Research UK's Key signs and symptoms.

Cancer screening

Screening can pick up signs of cancer at an early stage before symptoms have a chance to develop.
Early detection means that treatments are often simpler and have a higher chance of success. It is important to be registered with a GP to take part in screening.

Breast cancer screening (mammography)

Breast screening can help find cancers when they are too small to see or feel. All women over 50 are eligible for breast screening. In England, the programme is currently available to women aged between 50 and 70 years but is being extended to include women aged 47 by 2012. If you are over 70 years old or haven't been contacted and would like to be screened, you will need to speak to your doctor or breast screening unit to arrange an appointment.

When it comes to finding cancer early, screening is only part of the story. You can also help yourself by being more aware of your body and checking yourself.

Breast cancer signs - what to look out for

  • A change in size, shape or feel of a breast
  • A nipple has become inverted (pulled in) or changed its position or shape.
  • A rash around the nipple.
  • Discharge from one or both nipples.
  • Puckering, dimpling or redness of the skin.
  • A swelling under your armpit or around your collarbone (where the lymph nodes or glands are).
  • A lump or thickening in your breast that feels different from the rest of the breast tissue.
  • Pain or discomfort that is new to you and felt only on one side.

Cervical screening (the smear test)

Cervical screening aims to find early changes in the cervix that could develop into cancer. Treating early changes can prevent cervical cancer from developing. Women are invited every three to five years from their early twenties to their early sixties.

Regular cervical screening is the best way to detect changes to the cervix and can prevent around 75% of cases of this disease in women.

Bowel cancer screening

Bowel screening is the UK’s newest national screening programme. It aims to spot bowel cancer early by using a test called the Faecal Occult Blood Test to look for hidden (or “occult”) signs of blood in the stool. The test is done in the privacy of your own home and samples are sent to a lab for testing. Men and women are invited to take part in bowel screening every two years between the ages of 60 and 69 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and from 50 to 74 in Scotland.

Bowel cancer signs

Warning signs to look out for include a change in bowel habits from that which is normal for you. People may experience rectal bleeding as well as significant weight loss and tiredness, which can also be signs of bowel cancer.

Things to note down that your GP will probably want to know:

  • How often you've been going to the toilet to pass, or try to pass motions, and if your motions have become persistently looser over a few weeks, without going back to normal.
  • If you've been having any symptoms other than bleeding from the bottom, such as straining, lumps, soreness, pain or itchiness.
  • When your symptoms started, and how long you've been experiencing them.
  • If bowel cancer runs in your family.

For more information about cancer screening programs visit Screening for Cancer.

More than 200 different types of cancer exist, each with different causes, symptoms and treatments. The research into the treatment of these cancers is led by organisations such as Cancer Research UK, and a third of the cost of Cancer Research UK's pioneering work is provided in the form of legacy gifts often from people who have seen the benefits brought about by this important work.


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