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