What are signs and symptoms?

Signs and symptoms can help doctors diagnose certain types of diseases.

A sign is a presentation that can be noticed – for example, an irregular heartbeat which can be detected with a stethoscope, or a lump in the breast which can be discovered with a breast check.

A symptom, on the other hand, is a feeling described by individuals. Pain, tenderness, bloating and itchiness are all different types of symptoms.


How does cancer produce signs and symptoms?

Cancer, a group of diseases characterised by abnormal cell growth, can cause many different types of signs and symptoms.

As there are more than 200 forms of cancer, signs and symptoms vary depending on the location of the cancer, whether it has spread to other areas or metastised, and if the individual has any other health concerns.

Some cancers don’t produce any signs or symptoms until they have become quite large. By this time, it’s likely the cancer has reached an advanced stage and has spread to other areas in the body. For example, it’s common for people with early-stage pancreatic cancer and ovarian cancer to have no signs or symptoms.

Other cancers can display vague signs and symptoms that can easily be confused with other diseases. For example, signs and symptoms of stomach cancer can include bloating and abdominal discomfort – both of which are common in other, more minor, health concerns.

Many types of cancers cause signs and symptoms when abnormal cells grow into tumours that cause pressure on nearby organs, blood vessels and nerves. For example, tumours in the brain can cause severe headaches, memory loss and difficulty controlling movement.

Staging describes the size and severity of the cancer and helps to inform the diagnostic and treatment approach. Early cancer stages include Stage 0 (pre-invasive cancer) and Stage 1. Stages 2-3 indicate a regional spread, where the cancer may have spread but remains localised. Stage 4 cancer is the most severe and indicates advanced or metastatic cancer, meaning it has spread through the bloodstream or lymphatic system to other parts of the body. The staging system can vary slightly different for each type of cancer.


What are the common signs and symptoms of cancer?

It is important to note that the common signs and symptoms of cancer can also be associated with many other diseases, so displaying these does not necessarily mean there is cancer.

General signs and symptoms commonly associated with many types of cancers include fever, fatigue, pain, skin discolouration (including yellowing, reddening or itching of the skin) and rapid weight loss.

These are likely to present as a result of cancerous cells draining the body’s energy supply and interfering with the way energy is absorbed from food.

It’s important to encourage patients to visit their doctor for a proper diagnosis if they are experiencing any signs or symptoms that are unusual. The earlier that a cancer is detected, the more likely it is that treatment can successfully remove the cancer and prevent it from reoccurring.