If you found a lump on your body where there wasn’t one before, you might proceed to freak out. Doctors call this an “alarm symptom,” or a sign that should put patients on high alert for cancer. Yet when British researchers recently surveyed people who had experienced 10 of these types of signs, about half of the participants didn’t see their docs. Some people brushed the symptoms off as inconsequential, while others feared what they might find out.
This doesn’t mean you should think “tumor” the second you feel something new. But there are certainly situations that require action, like if you have any symptom that’s completely different than what you’ve had before; if it’s more severe than anything you’ve experienced; or if it persists longer than you’d expect.
If a symptom lasts 3 to 6 months or significantly grows in severity, it’s time to call your doc—though you’ll probably want to get some signs, like bleeding, checked out sooner. Act even faster if you have a family history of cancer, if you smoke, or if you drink heavily, advises Gordon Iheme, M.D., an internal medicine specialist at Cleveland Clinic. All factors raise your cancer risk.
Here are 10 red-alert signs and what they might mean for your health.
1. Change in the way a mole looks
The deadly skin cancer melanoma can strike at any age and often appears first in the form of unusual moles. View any alterations to your skin with extra suspicion if you’re outside a lot, and see a doctor if you spot a new mole or one that’s growing or changing color, advises Marc Shapiro, M.D., of the Cleveland Clinic department of hematology and oncology.
2. Persistent cough or hoarseness
Coughs that don’t go away could signal lung cancer, especially if you’re a heavy smoker. And a scratchy voice may serve as a sign of head and neck cancers. That’s because malignancies can directly affect your voice box or damage the nerves that control it, paralyzing your vocal cords. Head and neck cancers are on the rise in young men due to increased rates of infection with the HPV virus, which can cause the cancers, says Mary Daly, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the department of clinical genetics at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia.
3. Unexplained lump
You’ve probably felt the lymph nodes in your neck swell when you have a cold. That just means your body’s fighting a bug. But swollen lymph nodes in your armpit, neck, and groin that don’t go away after a few months and aren’t accompanied by signs of infection could be lymphoma, which tends to occur at a young age, Dr. Daly says. And of course, lumps in your testicles—which may signal testicular cancer—should prompt an immediate call to your doc.
4. Changes in bladder habits
Having to pee more often or more urgently than usual could be a sign of prostate cancer, which tends to appear at younger ages in some ethnic groups (including African-Americans),
5. New bowel routines
Watch your number two, too. Colon cancer can cause long-term constipation, diarrhea, or a change in the way your poop looks. (It often appears narrower.) Some Cancers Have Genetic Links, like prostate and colon cancers, so stay more alert for new bathroom patterns if you have a family history, Dr. Iheme says.
6. Unexplained weight loss
Shedding pounds when you’re not eating less or exercising more could point to colon or liver cancer due to a phenomenon called cachexia. That’s when tumors release compounds that change your metabolism in complex ways, reducing your body’s ability to use protein and calories and wasting away muscles and fat. You’ll want to pay extra attention to this symptom if colon cancer runs in your family or you’re a big boozer. (But if you do actually want to drop weight, check out
7. Lingering, unexplained pain
In most cases, you can pinpoint a reason your back or chest might ache, Dr. Daly says—like running through the first round of golf this season or a particularly killer CrossFit workout. Cut back on your activity and see if the pain goes away. If it lingers for 3 months or longer, it’s time to schedule an appointment. That’s because tumors pressing on nerves, organs, or bones can cause aches. Also, if you have severe abdominal pain that doesn’t let up, “that’s something that definitely should not be ignored,” Dr. Iheme says. Though there are many potential causes, several common and serious cancers—like those of the stomach and pancreas—produce this symptom.
8. Unexplained bleeding
Blood in your phlegm could mean lung cancer, while spotting it in the toilet could signal kidney, bladder, or colon cancer. And a skin tag that bleeds could be skin cancer. Tumors can bleed themselves, or damage the blood vessels or lining of the lungs. Don’t wait before getting this checked out. If it’s severe, sudden, or you have symptoms of shock—such as a rapid pulse or a drop in blood pressure—head to the ER.
9. Sores that don’t heal
Some skin cancers show up this way. Sores in your mouth could be linked to oral cancer, especially if you smoke, drink, or have HPV—all factors that raise your risk, Dr. Daly says. Ask your doctor to check your sores if they don’t go away within that 3- to 6-month window.
10. Trouble swallowing
If you can’t gulp, it may signal head and neck cancer—a tumor may be blocking your throat. As with oral cancer, smoking, drinking, and HPV can all increase your risk. Failure to swallow is also linked with cancers of the stomach or esophagus. Though these diseases aren’t common in young men, people with reflux have a higher risk of esophageal cancer, and those with ulcers may be prone to stomach cancers.