Do You Know the Warning Signs of Cancer?

By Semko, Laura 
March 21, 2017
February 2015

Do You Know the Warning Signs of Cancer?

The common cold may be easy to identify—a runny nose, sneezing, congestion. But what about cancer? Its warning signs may be far less obvious. Recent research suggests many people may not know them. Even more alarming: They may not consider such symptoms serious.

Assessing cancer knowledge

In a recent study, researchers in England wanted to gauge people’s general knowledge of possible cancer symptoms. They mailed a questionnaire to a group of adults ages 50 and older. They chose to focus on older adults because age can raise a person’s risk for many types of cancer. As a result, this age group may be better at recognizing signs of the disease.

The questionnaire didn’t mention anything about cancer. Instead, it asked study participants if they had certain symptoms during the previous 3 months. These included a chronic cough, rapid weight loss, bowel changes, headache, and sore throat. Some of these can be warning signs of cancer. Other symptoms were added to disguise the true nature of the study.

More than 1,700 adults responded to the questionnaire. If they answered yes to any symptoms, they were prompted to write in a possible cause. They were also asked if they found the symptom serious enough to see a doctor.

More than half of the adults reported having at least 1 possible cancer warning sign in the previous 3 months. The most common: a chronic cough and changes in bowel movements. Only 2% of respondents thought these and other signs might be related to cancer. What’s more, many didn’t consider them serious—even the more well-known ones, such as a change in a mole—a common sign of skin cancer.

Recognizing the disease

Fewer people are dying from cancer today compared with 20 years ago. Screening tests for the disease are partly the reason. They may help find cancer early when it’s easier to treat. For instance, a mammogram can detect breast cancer before you feel a lump.

That’s good news. But doctors don’t have a screening test for all cancers. So it’s still important to know the potential warning signs. People who recognize them are more likely to seek care right away, improving their chances against the disease.

Often, a health problem other than cancer is the cause of a certain symptom. But if you have one of the following, talk with your health care provider.

  • A lump in the breast or other part of the body

  • Skin problems, such as a sore that doesn’t heal or a mole that has changed shape

  • Unexplained weight loss

  • A chronic cough

  • Pain that doesn’t go away, such as a headache or backache

  • Changes in bathroom habits, such as constipation, bloody stool, or frequent urination

  • Unusual bleeding

  • Trouble swallowing

Some cancers may also cause fever and fatigue.


Are you up to date on your cancer screenings?


Online resources

American Cancer Society

National Cancer Institute


March 21, 2017


An Exploration of Public Knowledge of Warning Signs for Cancer. S. Keeney, et al. European Journal of Oncology Nursing. 2011;15(1):31-7., Attributions of Cancer ‘Alarm’ Symptoms in a Community Sample. K.L. Whitaker, et al. PLoSOne. 2014;9(12):e114028., Cancer Statistics, 2014. R. Siegel, et al. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. 2014;64(1):9-29., Recognition of Cancer Warning Signs and Anticipated Delay in Help-Seeking in a Population Sample of Adults in the UK. S.L. Quaife, et al. British Journal of Cancer. 2014;110(1):12-8.

Reviewed By:  

Turley, Ray, BSN, MSN