CancerCancer Signs and Symptoms

Let's Talk About the Signs and Symptoms of Cancer

A zillion symptoms look like cancer—but they don’t always, or even usually, mean you’ve actually got cancer. Learn the details so you can rest easy…or get yourself to the doctor if need be.

    Our Pro PanelCancer Symptoms

    We went to some of the nation’s top experts in cancer to bring you the most up-to-date information possible.

    Josephine (Joy) Feliciano, M.D. headshot.

    Josephine (Joy) Feliciano, M.D.Medical Oncologist, Assistant Professor of Oncology

    The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
    Baltimore, MD
    Swati Kulkarni, M.D. headshot.

    Swati Kulkarni, M.D.Surgical Oncologist, Associate Professor of Surgery

    Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern Medicine
    Chicago, IL
    Dale Shepard, M.D., Ph.D.

    Dale Shepard, M.D., Ph.D.Medical Oncologist (specializing in 18 cancers)

    Cleveland Clinic Hematology and Medical Oncology
    Cleveland, OH

    Frequently Asked QuestionsCancer Symptoms

    Can you prevent cancer?

    With about 90% to 95% of cancers caused by genetic mutations that happen during our lifetimes, we can do things to help reduce our risk of cancer. The top suggestions are basic healthy-living advice: Stop smoking, maintain a healthy weight, reduce sun exposure (and wear sunscreen), and eat a well-balanced diet. Other ways to help prevent advanced stage cancer include having regular, age-appropriate cancer screenings to catch precancerous cells or cancer in early stages when it’s easiest to treat, so be sure to talk to your doctor about when and what those screenings are. And if you think you might have an inherited genetic link to cancer (about 5% to 10% of people of those with cancer), it’s a good idea to discuss genetic testing with your doctor, too.

    How does cancer kill you?

    Cancer = cells that don’t stop growing when they’re supposed to. They’re abnormal, unhealthy, and just keep going and going. These cells often form tumors (though in certain cancers, like leukemia, they’re in the blood stream instead) that invade key organs, including the lungs, brain, and liver, disrupting normal bodily functions. At the start, cancer cells make it difficult for those organs to do their jobs, and then as they increase in size and location, they can make it impossible for your organs to properly function. Symptoms increase and worsen. As your body systems shut down and these abnormal cells spread to more areas, they cause continued damage and destruction—and, unfortunately, this can lead to death.

    What is Stage IV cancer?

    Also called metastasis (or metastatic), stage IV cancer is advanced disease that has spread to multiple places in your body. It’s often not possible to be cured of cancer at this stage, but you can potentially live years with advanced stage cancer and have a good quality of life, thanks to treatments like targeted therapy.

    When was cancer discovered?

    The oldest description of cancer currently on record is from an ancient Egyptian textbook on trauma surgery from 3000 BC, called the Edwin Smith Papyrus. The word for cancer first showed up in medical literature after that, around 400 BC, as “karkinos,” meaning crab in Greek, named by Greek physician Hippocrates (for whom the Hippocratic Oath is named). He called it this because a tumor, which is surrounded by swollen blood vessels, reminded him of a crustacean in the sand, its legs forming a circle. Later, Roman physician Celsus (28-50 BC) translated the Greek term into cancer, the Latin word for crab. From that time on, other physicians and scientists sought to figure out what cancer is, and what causes it, with various theories along the way.

    Erin L. Boyle

    Erin L. Boyle


    Erin L. Boyle, the senior editor at HealthCentral from 2016-2018, is a freelance medical writer and editor.