Does early stage cancer have symptoms?

When you read an article about cancer or hear that a friend or loved one has been diagnosed with cancer or potentially has cancer, it is natural to have anxiety and questions about your own health risks. Maybe there is cancer somewhere? How long can you have cancer without realizing it? Do you need to be tested?

When it comes to cancer, there aren’t always clear indicators. Occasionally, symptoms can be extremely mild or non-existent (asymptomatic), while in other instances symptoms can be severe. For your own peace of mind and in the interest of early detection, it always makes sense to get tested when you’re not feeling yourself. 

Symptomatic vs. asymptomatic cancer

Cancer is considered asymptomatic when there are no visible symptoms. Many cancers are asymptomatic in their early stages, therefore, even individuals who appear fit and healthy require regular screening. Cancers that cause obvious symptoms in the early stages are called symptomatic cancers. Sudden or severe symptoms do not automatically indicate cancer, but the sooner a diagnosis is made, with any cancer, the sooner treatment can start and this allows for a greater likelihood of success in recovery.

Types of cancer and symptoms to look out for:

Cancer type

Early symptoms

Later stage symptoms

bladder cancer

blood in urine

lower back pain; inability to urinate

breast cancer

lump in breast

swelling of breast or arm; pain

colon and rectal cancer

changes in bowel habits; bloody stool

unexplained weight loss; nausea; weakness

endometrial cancer

abnormal bleeding

abdominal pain and bloating; changes in bowel habits

kidney cancer

lower back pain, often on one side; blood in the urine

unexplained weight loss; fever


flu-like symptoms; easy bruising

bone and joint pain; weakness; swollen lymph nodes

liver cancer

yellowing skin (jaundice); right side pain

abdominal pain; vomiting; weakness

lung cancer

persistent or worsening cough; coughing up blood

fluid in the lungs; severe fatigue; shortness of breath


A mole that has an irregular shape or is darkening

hardened lump under the skin; swollen lymph nodes

non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma

swollen, painless lymph nodes; fatigue

weight loss; fevers; abdominal pain; night sweats

pancreatic cancer

jaundice; back pain; fatigue

swelling; digestion problems; weight loss

prostate cancer

difficulty urinating; blood in the urine

bladder problems; losing bowel control; groin soreness

thyroid cancer

lump in the neck; voice changes

breathing problems; sore throat; difficulty swallowing


Common early cancer warning signs and symptoms:

Unexplained Weight Loss: If you lose weight for no reason, call your doctor. Losing 10 kilograms is not much of a worry. However, prolonged and unexplained weight loss may be the first sign of cancer.

Fatigue: Cancer cells use up the same nutrient source as healthy cells would use to grow and develop, so these nutrients no longer replenish your body. This “nutrient theft” can make you very tired. There are many major causes of fatigue, and most of them are not related to cancer. Call your doctor if your symptoms are severe enough to affect your quality of life. 

Fever: Fever can be a common symptom of a cold or flu and usually goes away on its own. Certain characteristics of recurrent fever may predict an association with cancer. Special attention should be paid to no other signs of infection and recurring cold sweats. 

Pain: Pain is another symptom that can be caused by a variety of health problems, most of which are not cancer. However, persistent pain can also indicate an underlying medical condition. 

Cancer can cause pain in several ways with pain radiating throughout the body or being confined to the original source. If you have pain that doesn’t go away and you don’t know where the pain is coming from, you should contact your doctor. 

Skin Changes: The skin is the largest organ in our body and can be a window to our overall health. Jaundice (yellowing of the eyes or fingertips) is one of the symptoms of a possible infection or cancer. See your doctor if you see any signs of jaundice. 

Changes in moles can also be a cause for concern. Call your doctor if a mole:

  • Has irregular edges
  • Changes colour or gets darker
  • Is large or growing quickly

Should you have any of these symptoms that don’t go away or get worse with time, you should see a doctor to find out what’s causing them. If cancer is not the cause, a doctor can help figure out what the cause is and treat it, accordingly.

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