Could you spot the signs of cancer?

Early diagnosis is vital in beating the disease, but many cancer symptoms aren’t well known

Could you spot the signs of cancer?
HM Government Cancer Care
Are you familiar with the lesser known symptoms of cancer? Recognising them could help you with early diagnosis

In our lifetime, half of us will be diagnosed with cancer*. And one of the keys to surviving it is early diagnosis and prompt treatment.

However, while some symptoms of the disease are well known – such as lumps appearing on your body or moles changing appearance – many are not.

But being aware of them, and taking action quickly if you notice them, could save your life.

Know your body

The best way to protect yourself is to be aware of your body and any changes that are happening to it.

That’s because you know your body better than anyone – you know what’s normal for you and what’s not. Everyone is different. So, if something changes that worries you, it’s best to contact your GP practice as soon as possible.

The chances are it’s nothing serious and your mind will be put at rest. Or, if your doctor is concerned, they may refer you for tests. These, again, are more likely to rule out cancer, rather than confirm a diagnosis, and you can get on with your life.

HM Government Cancer Care
If you feel a change in your body, it’s best to contact your GP practice as soon as possible

But whatever the result, the NHS will be there to treat you every step of the way.

Spot it early

The thought you might have cancer is frightening. There’s the fear of the unknown, the thought of having to have lots of tests, operations and treatment, and then the worry of how it could impact your family.

It’s easy to feel it would be better not to know or to put your head in the sand and ignore any symptoms.

But putting it off like this makes things much worse, because the earlier you spot it and ask for help, the better your chances. Any delay could lead to your needing more complex treatment and a potentially worse outcome.

And survival rates are increasing: they have doubled in the past 40 years, with half of us now expected to live for at least 10 years after diagnosis*. So contact your GP practice early to maximise your chances. 

HM Government Cancer Care
Cancer survival rates have doubled in the past 40 years – half of those diagnosed are expected to live 10 years after diagnosis*

‘Cancer symptoms can come in different shapes and sizes,’ says NHS England’s National Clinical Director for Cancer, Professor Peter Johnson. ‘Some can be less obvious than others, so it’s important to know what is normal for you so you can spot any changes.

‘We know that many people don’t want to bother anyone with their health concerns – particularly if they are unsure about them – but we would always prefer you to contact your GP practice so that you can
be checked.

‘If something in your body doesn’t feel right, please come forward. It could be nothing serious, but it could save your life.’


Blood cancers like leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma are particularly difficult to spot as their symptoms seem so general.

But combined, they’re the fifth most common cancer in the UK – and the most frequent in children – with around 41,000 people diagnosed every year.

So it’s vital to know the signs to look out for. They include:

  • Breathlessness
  • Drenching night sweats
  • Persistent, recurrent or severe infections
  • Unexplained fever
  • Unexplained rash or itchy skin
  • Pain in bones, joints or stomach
  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Unexplained bruising or bleeding
  • Lumps or swellings

‘Symptoms can vary,’ says Professor Peter Johnson. ‘Some, such as breathlessness, night sweats or feeling tired when you’re not sure why, can seem general. But if something doesn’t feel right for you, contact your GP practice.’

Despite working in a GP surgery, pharmacy dispensary assistant Anna Mamwell thought her symptoms were the flu when she was diagnosed with leukaemia aged 39.

‘I was fit and healthy; I was one of those people that never took a day off ill,’ she says. ‘I counted myself as fairly well educated on health because of my job, so my diagnosis was even more of a shock.’

She was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia – a very aggressive form of the disease with just a 15 per cent survival rate – after experiencing symptoms for about 10 to 14 days.

‘I thought I had flu initially,’ says Anna, from Louth, Lincolnshire. ‘I’d had this thumping headache that just wouldn’t shift. I think that was the start of it, but, obviously, being a busy working mum, you carry on.

‘It ultimately got to the point where I couldn’t go to work. But I wasn’t getting better and started to question what was going on.’

HM Government Cancer Care
‘It ultimately got to the point where I couldn’t go to work,’ says pharmacy dispensary assistant Anna Mamwell

‘I was feeling lethargic, had no appetite, was sweaty and feverish, had bone pain in my neck and a rash across my chest, but still didn’t link it to anything.

‘I’d had a really heavy period at the time, which was unusual for me; my periods usually lasted two days and were really light. Like many people, I wasn’t aware that unusual heavy bleeding, whether it’s your period or a nosebleed, is a symptom of leukaemia.

‘Only 50 per cent of adults in the UK can name a symptom of blood cancer, which is is why I am advocating for body awareness.’

Anna saw a nurse practitioner who gave her antibiotics and advised her to have blood tests.

‘That actually saved my life,’ says Anna, now 48. ‘A few hours after I had my bloods done, my GP was on the phone. He said, “I need you to go to hospital now, something’s wrong with your blood.”

‘I’ve seen my blood results now and they were way out and screaming “leukaemia”. Obviously he couldn’t say that to me over the phone.’

Staff were waiting for her when she arrived at Lincoln County Hospital and she had a bone marrow biopsy, which confirmed the diagnosis. Within 24 hours, she started intense chemotherapy for several months, and has now been in remission for eight years.

‘I find it quite ironic that someone like me, who was very aware of symptoms of all sorts of diseases, didn’t pick up that I had symptoms of leukaemia.

‘Now, when people say, “Oh, it’s probably nothing”, I always say, “Don’t dismiss it, it’s your life.” You have to be your own advocate. Early diagnosis is lifesaving – it can lead to better outcomes and better treatment options.’


Some general signs that you might have cancer aren’t always easy to notice, but keep an eye out for:

  • Breathlessness
  • Frequent infections
  • Unexplained night sweats
  • Unexpected or unexplained bruising or bleeding
  • Blood in your pee – even just once
  • An unexplained lump
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Blood in your poo, which may look red or black

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‘I was lucky that it was caught early’

Retired IT consultant David Day, 70, lives near Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, with his wife, Christine. He was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2013.

David says: ‘That December I started seeing blood in my urine every time I went to the toilet. There had been an NHS TV campaign earlier that summer about checking your urine for blood so, after about a week, I rang the GP practice.

‘At that time I didn’t think it was cancer; I thought it was a UTI. But the doctor did a quick dip test and referred me to the urology department at Addenbrooke’s Hospital where I had a cystoscopy – a camera into the bladder.

HM Government Cancer Care
‘After about a week, I rang the GP practice’: David Day, 70, was quick to reach out for a test once he began experiencing symptoms

‘I was awake and looking at the monitor, and saw what looked like a long-stemmed mushroom on the screen. I said, “What’s that?” The consultant said, “We’ll talk about that in a minute.” Then they got my wife from the waiting room. She had to do the “walk of fear” into the operating room. It was scary.

‘The consultant then said, “You’ve got bladder cancer.” That “mushroom” was a tumour. That was a bit of a shock.’

Within weeks, David had had surgery to remove the cancer and started a three-year course of BCG treatment into his bladder to help stop it returning.

‘I was lucky,’ says David. ‘The consultant said, “We’ve caught it early enough” – it was high grade but it hadn’t spread.’

Annual checks have so far shown no signs of recurrence, and David expects to be signed off next year.

He says: ‘Thank goodness for that TV campaign because, to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have taken it as seriously without it.’

This article is part of a paid-for partnership with HM Government.

*Cancer Research UK.