Cancer Signs and Symptoms

Early detection matters. Learn the symptoms of the most common cancers among older adults, including prostate, lung, breast, and ovarian cancer.
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Cancer is much more likely to be curable if the symptoms are caught early. In fact, with certain types of cancer, such as ovarian and prostate cancer, early detection can make an enormous difference in prognosis and outcome. It's worthwhile to be hypervigilant, then, in watching for cancer symptoms and aggressive about asking for screening tests and checkups to make sure you and the people you care about are in good health -- and stay that way.

Here are symptoms of some of the most common cancers in those over age 55, along with important risk factors.

Prostate cancer symptoms

  • Difficulty urinating: either trouble getting started or weak or interrupted flow
  • The need to urinate often, particularly at night
  • Pain or burning during urination
  • Blood in urine or semen
  • Erection problems
  • Pain during ejaculation or difficulty ejaculating
  • Stiffness or pain in the lower back, hips, or upper thighs

Note: Many men -- more than half of those in their 60s -- suffer from benign prostatic hypertrophy, a set of symptoms similar to those for prostate cancer (in which the prostate becomes enlarged). This common condition is annoying, but it's neither a disease nor a life-threatening condition. Any male who has had prostate problems should have a regular PSA (prostate-specific antigen) test and be monitored for prostate cancer. Additional risk factors include a family history of prostate cancer or being African-American.

Breast Cancer Symptoms

  • A lump or thickening in the breast or underarm area
  • Tenderness in the breast or nipple
  • A change in breast or nipple shape
  • Nipple discharge
  • Red, swollen, or scaly skin on the breast or nipple

Note: Other factors that increase risk -- men can get breast cancer, too -- are family history (particularly breast cancer in the mother or sister), a diet high in saturated fat, obesity, early onset of menses or late menopause, being childless or being older at the birth of a first child, and taking hormones. A genetic mutation known as the BRCA gene (most common in those of Eastern European Jewish descent) greatly increases the risk of breast cancer, particularly when combined with a family history of the disease.

Colorectal, Lung and Ovarian Cancer Symptoms

Colorectal Cancer Symptoms

  • Constipation
  • Blood in the stool
  • Narrow or thin stools
  • Stomach cramps
  • Gas and bloating
  • Sense of fullness after eating small amounts
  • Nausea and vomiting

Note: Because many of the signs of colorectal cancer can easily be confused with the symptoms of some digestive disorders, it's important to monitor them carefully and inform the doctor if digestive problems reappear frequently, don't clear up quickly, or become chronic. For this reason, regular screening via colonoscopy for colorectal cancer is recommended for everyone over 50.

Having polyps removed from your colon or a history of inflammatory bowel disease, including Crohn's and ulcerative colitis, puts you at increased risk for colorectal cancer. Family history is also important with colon cancer, as is race. African-Americans and Jews of Eastern European descent are at particular risk for colorectal cancer. Eating a diet high in animal fat and low in fruits and vegetables is also a risk factor.

Lung Cancer Symptoms

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chronic cough
  • A change in a chronic cough
  • Pain or aching when coughing or breathing
  • Coughing up blood
  • Difficulty swallowing

Note: If you or someone you're caring for was or is a smoker, you'll want to bring this to the doctor's attention, even if it was a long time ago. Smoking for any period greatly increases the risk of lung cancer. Exposure to secondhand smoke and certain chemicals is also a risk factor.

Ovarian Cancer Symptoms

  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Urgent need to urinate
  • Frequent urination
  • Trouble eating or feeling full quickly

Note: Family history is one of the most important risk factors for ovarian cancer. And those with the BRCA genetic mutation (most common in those of Eastern European Jewish descent) are at risk for ovarian cancer as well as breast cancer.

General cancer symptoms (cancer of unspecified origin)

  • Loss of appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Jaundice
  • Nausea

Note: Sometimes a person shows signs of declining health but doesn't have pain or other symptoms in a particular area of the body. This can be a sign of cancer that started in one spot but has spread to the liver or other organs and is affecting overall health. Sometimes a tumor is discovered because it has grown big enough to press on other organs.

Melanie Haiken

Melanie Haiken discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions when she was health editor of Parenting magazine. See full bio

8 months, said...

I meant to add also that I had skin cancer I was being treated for at the same time I was diagnosed with breast cancer. All the doctors claimed that the Stage II Squamous Cell Carcinoma was not going to spread the cancer but I believe that is why I have breast cancer and also believe it has spread to other areas of my body. Am not doing any surgery or treatment of the breast cancer due to my medical problems of heart trouble and diabetes and wanting to have a decent quality of life for the time I have left here on earth.

8 months, said...

Just diagnosed with Breast Cancer about the 3rd of October, 2017. Age 83 years. After reading so many reports and stories about the pain and suffering people with cancer have to endure I am planning on not doing any surgery for to remove the tumor or lymph node under my arm and doing no treatments. My quality of life is more important to me than going through hell.

almost 5 years, said...

Wanna share something on Colo-rectal Cancer regarding a new research by researchers at the Edinburgh University's School of Molecular, Genetic and Population Health Sciences, - See more at:

over 6 years, said...

@Shauun Yeah, if I hadn't stepped on that roach back in '86 I'm sure I would've won the lotto in '92.

over 6 years, said...

Did you ever wish that you could make one change in your life,That would of changed the way your life turned out today?What would that chang be?Is it to late to make that chang,See youu next year,I will be back from the past.I trust.

over 6 years, said...

Thanks for the info,my husband has been in denial about his health,cough has worsened,trouble getting up steps,urine is darker,fatigued,short of breath,trouble swallowing,hearing,seeing,spitting all the time,moody,on edge,unhappy,no fun anymore and I knew he wasn't getting any better,thanks to this info,I have a better understanding of his illness,he doesn't want me to worry.Men aren't gonna tell you everything,neither is the doctor,I always suspected cancer. He does have "Sarcodosis!"which is a lung disease.There is no cure for this disease! Thank You

almost 7 years, said...

Thank God for IMS Hospice and his grace i was able to survive ovarian cancer. I was diagnosed third stage and it has moved to the stomach. With the help of the great nurses at IMSHospice i was made well. they are the best hospice in Atlanta

over 7 years, said...

i have breast cancer

over 7 years, said...

This article was helpful because it contains clear, concise information presented in a logical and rational manner. The author(s) of this article appear to have assumed that I (as the reader) am intelligent enough to read the lists of symptoms and associate the information with my physical symptoms. Thank you!

over 7 years, said...

most everything you said even tho it can aslo be signs for other things ,It makes you aware of the things to look for and to ask the drs. about.

over 7 years, said...

If having polyps removed from your colon puts you at increased risk for colorectal cancer, does not having polyps removed affect your risk? This comment has me scratching my head.

almost 8 years, said...

What about side effects of radiation treatment? My doctor wants me to go this route instead of chemo.... Any info would be greatly appreciated. I am scared

almost 8 years, said...

Have you tried alkaline water I've heard it does wonders to people dealing with cancer and or liver problems...youLL lose nothing by trying it really touched me it costs you nothing to try it

about 8 years, said...

I just lost one of my brothers from cancer of his voice box. He was having hoarseness with some loss of ability to speak for a long time. I think mainly because he had no insurance, he attempted to doctor himself. Eventually he got worse and a growth appeared in his throat, not very visible, but caused pain and difficult breathing. He saught help finally, then was diagnosed, a tumor found and was removed alone with his voice box. Weeks later it was found the cancer had returned on the opposite side. They could not do radiation at that time. He received two chemo treatments, which caused an opened wound in the crease just under his chin. For some reason he started hemorraging from his trach, was hospitalized, received blood, but they could not stop the bleeding completely. He wanted to go home, and did. He was gone within two days. I'am not sure why the bleeding occured. Please seek help with the first sign of anything unusual, even without insurance. I do believe if he saught help at the onset, he may still be here today.

about 8 years, said...

I had my regular GP tell me years that I was getting older and to expect to feel tired all the time. I had a lot of back pain and one pain management told my GP to send me to an orthopedic oncologist. My GP never told me to follow up on this and was giving me shots me for muscle aches in my lower back. We moved out of the area and new doctor told me after I could not stand the pain . that I had Myltiple Myeloma. Thank God I found a wonderful doctor that suggested a stem cell transplant and I am now in remission

about 8 years, said...

i am a 2x breast cancer survivor and could talk to anyone going through this

about 8 years, said...

is it true mushroom toxins can cure cancer ,how?

about 8 years, said...

God bless all the families who deal with the sadness of cancer. I lost my husband a wonderful physician who had helped so many people. He ignored the signs because he thought it just wouldn't happen to him---men pay attention and get check ups!

about 8 years, said...

In the early stages of breast cancer is chemotherpay necessary

over 8 years, said...

overweight, I decided to "rearrange" my eating habits. Heavy meal at noon, light meal at night and nothing after 6 pm. I lost about 1 pound per week. Ironically, what I thought was my diet turned out to be chollangio carcinoma--liver cancer and when discovered, I was in stage 4 and incurable. I have been given 10-12 months to live with 7-9 months remaining. Most people have been terrific, helpful, supportive, and simply wonderful. There are some insensitives who felt it worth their time to approach me. I have been asked "what did you do to get the cancer?" "Are you the one dying or something?" "I checked the internet-your cancer is not all that bad. You'll be ok. You are not dying." My favorite is "do you think God is trying to tell you something?" And don't forget about the one who loves attention so picks fights with you because you are now a captive audience. Be kind. Speak kind. Be supportive. If you don't know what to say, say nothing. I find that I am willing to talk freely about my cancer. I will answer questions. I want to talk about it. That is the way I am and that doesn't mean everyone is the same way. A simple hand on the shoulder or a hug says volumes and says it appropriately.

over 8 years, said...

Saw the "symptoms of cancer" website ad and clicked on it - which took me to another page that offered "symptoms of cancer" and I clicked on it - which took me to another page that offered "symptoms of cancer." At that point I was asked to rate the page. So far I had been given NO information other than I should know the symptoms early on. In order to rate the page I had to sign up and two more pages later . . . get the picture?

over 8 years, said...

I'd like to know the symptoms of skin cancer... Anyone know?