15 Cancer Symptoms Women Are Likely to Ignore

Updated: Mar. 16, 2021

Many cancer signs mimic symptoms of other diseases or conditions, so it’s easy to brush them aside. All the doctors we interviewed agreed: Know your body, and if you notice an unusual pain or other change that persists and gets worse, head to the doctor.

06-menopause-Reasons You're Not Getting Your Period (and You're Definitely Not Pregnant!)_
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Postmenopausal bleeding

Any form of postmenopausal bleeding should be evaluated by a doctor. It may not be anything major but it could also be an early warning sign of uterine cancer, says Maurie Markman, MD, the President of Medicine & Science at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Philadelphia. The good news: Women diagnosed at stage 1, when the cancer hasn’t spread, have a five-year survival rate of 96 percent, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).

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Sores or pain in the mouth

A cold sore that heals is nothing to worry about, nor is a toothache that goes away after a trip to the dentist. But if you notice sores that don’t heal, pain that sticks around, white or red patches on the gums or tongue, and any swelling or numbness of the jaw it could be a sign of some mouth cancers, according to the ACS. If the symptoms persist for longer than two weeks, see a doctor. Learn the rampant cancer myths to stop believing.

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Nearly every woman complains of bloating, especially during that time of the month; but if you notice you’re still bloated after your cycle finishes or you feel consistently constipated, it could be a symptom of ovarian cancer or uterine cancer. “If it’s been a few weeks and isn’t getting better, that’s a change, that’s not you,” says Richard C. Wender, MD, chief cancer control officer for the ACS in Atlanta. “Ask a doctor to take a closer look.” A feeling of fullness despite a lighter appetite is another common sign of ovarian cancer, the ACS states.

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Abnormal periods or pelvic pain

It’s not uncommon for women to have irregular periods, but if your flow suddenly becomes significantly heavier month after month, if you start bleeding between periods, or if you have pelvic pain, ask your doctor for a transvaginal ultrasound to check for uterine or ovarian cancers, the ACS points out. This is what ob-gyns desperately wish you knew about ovarian cancer.

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Chronic coughing

Everyone gets colds that have you feeling like you’re coughing up a lung. But if you develop a cough that lasts three weeks or more and you don’t have other symptoms that usually accompany a cold or allergies, like a stuffy nose, it could be an early symptom of lung cancer. Leukemia can also cause symptoms that seem like bronchitis or a bad chest cold. “If it’s different than your regular cough and if it persists or you cough up a little blood, that’s significant,” says Dr. Markman. Here are the signs of lung cancer you might be ignoring.

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Stomach pain or nausea

An upset stomach is so common it will rarely mean you have cancer. But if you notice persistent stomach cramps or are suddenly nauseous all the time and it’s not getting better, see a doctor, the ACS suggests. It could turn out to be something as simple as GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), or perhaps gastritis or an ulcer, but it could also be a symptom of pancreatic or stomach cancer. This is what doctors do to prevent cancer themselves.

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Frequent fevers or infection

If you’re usually healthy but notice yourself getting sick or feverish more frequently, it could be an early sign of leukemia, according to the ACS. Leukemia is cancer of the blood and triggers the body to produce abnormal white blood cells, sapping the body’s infection-fighting abilities by weakening the immune system. Pay attention to flu-like symptoms, like achiness or fever, which don’t go away. Fevers tend to occur after cancer has started to spread, but together with chills, fever may be a sign of lymphoma. You should also pay attention to these early throat cancer symptoms.

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Difficulty swallowing

A sore throat can make swallowing hard or painful, but if you notice it persists for a few weeks and gets worse, see your doctor. This could be a sign of cancer of the esophagus (the swallowing tube that goes to the stomach), stomach, or throat, among others, according to the ACS. Difficulty swallowing is one of the health symptoms you should never ignore.

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Excessive bruising

You wake up with one mysterious bruise—that’s probably not a reason to worry; maybe you bumped into something stumbling to the bathroom last night. But if you start to notice bruises popping up all of a sudden, especially in multiple and strange places like your hands or fingers, it should raise an alarm. Easy, unusual bruising can be a sign of leukemia, according to the ACS. Over time, leukemia impairs the blood’s ability to carry oxygen and clot. Bruising is one of the leukemia symptoms you should not ignore.

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Unexplained weight loss

“Weight loss for a lot of Americans is a good thing; everyone’s dieting—but if you have less appetite when you usually have a good appetite, and there’s no big life event or problems happening to cause that, get it checked out,” says Dr. Markman. Weight loss or unusual changes to appetite can be a sign of many cancers—such as esophageal, pancreatic, liver, and colon—but it’s an especially common symptom of leukemia or lymphoma, says Dr. Wender. Here are some more symptoms of pancreatic cancer you might ignore.

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Persistent fatigue

Everyone has days when they’re low on energy, but you should feel refreshed after a good night’s sleep or two. If you notice you’re tired every day for more than a month, or experience shortness of breath when you didn’t before, see a doctor, says Dr. Wender. “Most of the time it won’t be cancer, but get it checked because you never know.” Leukemia and lymphoma commonly cause persistent fatigue. In addition, some colon or stomach cancers may cause blood loss that leads to fatigue due to anemia, the ACS states. There are some other causes of fatigue you may not be aware of.

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Chronic headaches

If you’re not prone to migraines and never get headaches, but suddenly find yourself popping ibuprofen every day, it could be a brain cancer symptom, according to the ACS. These are the genius cancer breakthroughs scientists want you to know about.

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Blood in the stool

Most likely it’s something benign, like hemorrhoids, says Dr. Wender. But this can be a sign of colon cancer. Cases are increasingly common in people under the age of 50—the age at which colon cancer screening is typically first recommended—Dr. Wender says it’s important to get checked out. “It’s easy to dismiss it as hemorrhoids or constipation, and if the problem comes and goes, people reassure themselves that nothing’s wrong—especially younger people,” he says. “But blood in a bowel movement is never normal, so get it checked out.” This isn’t the only thing that your bowel movements can reveal about your health.

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Noticeable skin changes

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in America, but it’s also one of the trickiest to recognize the early signs, says Dr. Wender. “Skin cancer is a tough one—many people think freckles, moles, or a darker age spot is just like the others they’ve had,” he says. Dr. Wender says if you notice a mole getting darker, larger, or becoming raised, get it checked out. An itchy mole could also be a red flag. Melanoma skin changes are easier to identify because those spots are often irregularly shaped as opposed to round, significantly darker in color, or even two distinctly different colors within one spot, he says. “Melanoma is far less common than other skin cancers but has the potential to be more deadly,” says Dr. Wender. “However, many melanomas have a long period where they’re not invasive and easy to cure, as long as they’re caught early.” These are sneaky places you didn’t realize you can get skin cancer.

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Breast dimpling, discoloration, or other changes

An unusual lump is the telltale sign of breast cancer women are told to look for. But other breast changes can signal cancer. If you notice the skin of your breast becoming dimpled, a nipple inverting, swelling, tenderness, or slight discoloration of the skin to a deeper red or pink, it could be cause for concern, says Dr. Wender. “Those signs don’t necessarily mean it’s cancer, but that’s exactly why women delay seeking help because they’re hoping it’s nothing,” he says. These are health secrets your breasts wish they could tell you.