Signs of Cancer

There are many different types of cancer, all with different symptoms and possible causes. But the American Cancer Society (ACS) says there's one thing that's true for most cancers, and it's this: Finding a cancer as early as possible (ideally, before it has spread) means it can be treated most effectively and with the fewest possible side effects.

That's why screenings and check-ups are so important. Screenings can find cancer before the cancer causes any symptoms. Since different tests are used to find different types of cancers (Read about Types of Cancer), ACS says that a doctor who knows your medical background can help you determine the best schedule for regular cancer check-ups, depending on your age, sex, family history and other factors.


  • Breast cancer - Although men can develop breast cancer, it is far more common in women. Risk factors include age as well as personal and family history. Women can do self-examination (Read about "Breast Self-Examination") of their breasts, looking for lumps, dimpling of the skin, swelling or changes in the appearance or feel of the breasts or nipples. The American Cancer Society (ACS) says women should know how their breasts normally feel so they can be aware of changes. Women should also ask their doctor about medical exams and mammograms. Mammograms can detect breast cancer long before it can be felt. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that women start to get screening mammograms at age 50, or younger if there are factors such as family history of breast cancer. ACS recommends women be given the option of yearly mammograms starting at age 40 and women age 45 to 54 should get mammograms every year. At age 55, ACS recommends that women can switch to every other year if they choose. Screenings are recommended to continue as long as a woman is in good health and has a continued life expectancy of at least 10 years. (Read about Breast Cancer)
  • Cervical cancer - By the time cervical cancer causes symptoms, it is often advanced. A Pap test or Pap smear, done as part of a pelvic examination, tests a small sample of cells taken from the cervix to spot cancer while the cancer is still in its early, more treatable stage. Less frequent testing may be an option as a woman gets older.
  • Uterine and ovarian cancer - These two types of cancers are not normally found by a Pap test. If a woman is concerned about her risk of these cancers, she should talk with her doctor. ACS says women who have gone through menopause should especially be aware of potential signs of these cancers. In addition, if any woman has suspicious symptoms - such as abdominal pain, bloating or abnormal bleeding - contact your doctor at once. (Read about Ovarian Cancer)


  • Prostate cancer - A man's risk of developing prostate cancer increases with age. Prostate cancer often has no symptoms until it reaches its more advanced stages (although there are other non-cancerous prostate conditions that can cause discomfort, frequent urination and pain). ACS recommends men talk with their doctors about the desirability of regular screenings for prostate cancer beginning at age 50, or earlier if there are risk factors present, including African American men and men with a family history of prostate cancer. (Read about "Minority Health") Screening tests include a blood test for prostate specific antigen (PSA) as well as a digital rectal exam. (Read about "Laboratory Testing") ACS says men should also talk with their doctors about what the results mean, and about the benefits and risks of early detection. (Read about "The Prostate")

All adults

  • Colorectal cancer - A personal or family history of colorectal disease can indicate a higher risk of developing colorectal cancer. Screenings usually start in middle age or earlier if a healthcare professional determines this is warranted. ACS recommends testing starting at age 50, or earlier if family history or other factors are present. Screening tests for colorectal cancer include fecal occult blood test, flexible sigmoidoscopy and colonoscopy. (Read about Colon Cancer)
  • Skin cancer - Everyone should inspect their skin regularly, looking for any suspicious growths as well as any changes in the size or color of moles. Ask your doctor about medical screenings, especially if you're at a higher risk due to family history or frequent sun exposure during work or leisure. (Read about Skin Cancer)
  • Oral cancer - Ask your dentist or primary care physician about oral cancer screening, especially if you could be at a higher risk due to factors such as smoking or excessive alcohol consumption. It's also important to talk to your doctor if you notice any suspicious sores in or around your mouth. (Read about Oral Cancer)

Screenings and routine tests may not find every cancer in its earliest, most treatable stage. But used correctly, they can help people improve their odds of staying in healthy shape for life.