Cancer Signs Women Might Miss

Identifying cancer symptoms early can increase chances for successful treatment

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

Many cancers are not detected until it's too late. But there are some early signs of cancer that women might overlook. Knowing the symptoms to look for can help a doctor diagnose cancer early, which can boost the odds of successful treatment.

The early signs of cancer in women can often be attributed to more common illnesses, but any unusual symptom that lasts for more than two weeks should be reported to a doctor who can diagnose and treat the problem, even if it is not cancer.

Here are some of the symptoms that could be early signs of cancer.

Unusual Bleeding

Unusual bleeding, even if it goes away quickly, should be seen by a doctor, especially if you are older. Abnormal bleeding and excessive bruising may signal leukemia. Bleeding of the gums without gum disease and bruising of the fingertips might mean that the blood isn’t clotting properly, which also may be a sign of leukemia.

Rectal bleeding, blood in the stool or dark stools are often dismissed as a symptom of hemorrhoids. However, doctors consider any blood in the toilet or stool to be serious and possibly a symptom of colorectal cancer, commonly known as colon cancer. Discuss these symptoms with your doctor to get the cause diagnosed and treated as soon as possible.

Unusual vaginal bleeding, such as bleeding between periods, during sexual intercourse or a heavy menstrual flow, has been linked to uterine and cervical cancers. Women should discuss irregular vaginal bleeding with their doctor.

Pain and Swelling

Swollen lymph nodes or lumps around the neck, underarm or groin should be examined by a doctor, as these are often signs that the body is fighting an infection. Painless lumps in these areas may be a sign of leukemia, while a lump under the arm may signal breast cancer. Discuss any lumps that don’t go away within two weeks with your doctor.

Pelvic or abdominal pain, bloating and feeling full are related to so many common conditions that they can be easy to dismiss. But when the discomfort isn’t part of your monthly menstruation cycle or lasts for more than a few days, it may be a sign of ovarian cancer and should be looked at by your doctor.

Red, swollen or tender breasts may be a symptom of breast cancer. Any unusual changes to your breasts, including hot, irritated or purplish discoloration, should be reported to your doctor.

Breathing and Swallowing

Shortness of breath or wheezing may be early signs of lung cancer and should be reported to a doctor if it continues for more than two weeks. Lung cancer patients often describe that these asthma-like symptoms occur during activities they had not found strenuous previously.  

A bad cough or chest pain similar to bronchitis may be a sign of several kinds of cancer, including lung tumors and leukemia.

Difficulty swallowing or a long-lasting feeling that you need to clear your throat may be a sign of esophageal or throat cancer. In some cases, there may also be an unusual sense of pressure when swallowing.

Gut Problems

A sudden drop in weight with no changes in diet or exercise can be a symptom of several cancers. While there are many causes for a sudden drop in weight, it is prudent to be evaluated by a professional that can diagnose and treat your symptoms.

Chronic upset stomach, cramps or stomachache can be a sign of colon, pancreatic and liver cancers. These gut problems are often caused by less serious conditions, but if the discomfort lasts for more than a few days, you should see your doctor.

Skin and Nails

Changes to your nipples and any discharge from the nipples may be signs of breast cancer. Changes to look for include the nipple flattening, becoming inverted or turning sideways, as well as itching or scaling. Discuss any nipple changes with your doctor.

Dark spots, moles or birthmarks that change color or shape may be a sign of skin cancer. Unexplained sores and sores that don’t heal or continue to bleed are also possible signs of skin cancer. Catching skin cancer early may make it easier to treat.

Dark streaks or dots in fingernails and toenails, as well as cracks that run the length of the nail, may be symptoms of skin cancer under the nail. White dots in the nail are considered normal, but nails that turn down over the tip can be a sign of lung cancer.


Fevers or infections that last for long periods or reoccur may be a sign of leukemia, which causes bone marrow to produce abnormal white blood cells. The abnormal cells can eventually crowd out the healthy white blood cells, making them less effective at fighting infections.

Don’t delay

"We are making great advances in the treatment of many cancers, but that doesn't replace early detection. For example, melanoma skin cancer is one of the most deadly cancers once it has spread to the rest of the body, but when it is diagnosed and treated in its earliest stages, 95 percent of patients are alive and cancer-free ten years later," Siobhan Lynch, MD, medical oncologist on the medical staff at Baylor All Saints Medical Center at Fort Worth, told dailyRx News.

"Doctors often don't consider cancer as a diagnosis, especially in young women. If you are having symptoms that are persistent and troubling to you, make sure that they are addressed. No one is going to know your body better than you do. No one is going to be a better advocate for your health than you will," Dr. Lynch said.

Listening to your body and knowing when to speak with your doctor can save your life. Diagnosing cancer early can boost your chances for successful treatment, so talk with your doctor about any unusual changes to your body or symptoms that last longer than two weeks.

Review Date: 
May 27, 2014
Last Updated:
June 16, 2014