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Cancer focus: symptoms you should never ignore

General Practitioner at Bupa UK
26 January 2021
With so much focus on coronavirus (COVID-19), you might be putting off seeing your GP about other issues. But if you notice any changes or anything unusual, it’s always a good idea to get them checked out. Some symptoms can be linked to cancer and should never be ignored.

Symptoms of cancer

Although there’s a good chance you won’t have cancer, don’t put off contacting your GP if you discover a lump or bump, or notice something else unusual. They will be able to advise you on the best approach, despite the pandemic.

The sooner you have a diagnosis, if there is something wrong, the quicker a suitable treatment plan can be put in place. If you do have cancer, this will improve your chances of making a full recovery.

Here, I share the main symptoms of the four most common cancers in the UK: breast, bowel, lung and prostate.

Breast lumps and changes to your breasts

It’s important to check your breasts for lumps and other changes regularly. A breast lump – or an area that feels thicker in your breast – is the most common symptom of breast cancer. This can be in your breast, armpit or upper chest (breast tissue extends all the way up to your collar bone).

There are other changes to your breasts that you should look out for and always flag to your GP. These include:

  • discharge or bleeding from your nipple
  • a change in the look or texture of your skin
  • inflammation or a rash on or around your nipple
  • a change to the shape of your nipple or if it becomes sunken or inverted
  • a lump or pain in your armpit
  • a change in the size or shape of your breast

An image showing how a lump can be a symptom of breast cancer 
An image showing how discharge can be a symptom of breast cancer 
An image showing how a change in the texture of your skin can be a symptom of breast cancer 
An image showing how a rash can be a symptom of breast cancer 
Infographic showing how a change to your nipple can be a symptom of breast cancer 
An image showing how pain in your armpit can be a symptom of breast cancer 
An image showing how a change in the size or shape of your breast can be a symptom of breast cancer 

How to check your breasts – animation

Checking your breasts regularly helps you know what’s normal for you. Our animation shows you how to do it and what to look for.

 

Changes to your bowels and toilet habits

It may be a subject you’d rather not talk about. But changes to your bowel movements, pain in your abdomen (tummy) or seeing blood in your poo can be symptoms of bowel cancer.

Always contact your GP if you experience any of the following symptoms.

  • Blood in your poo. You may see it in the water or on the toilet paper.
  • Changes in your bowel habits for more than three weeks. You may start going more often, strain more or experience a feeling of not emptying your bowel (incomplete emptying).
  • Pain, discomfort or bloating. Your tummy may feel tender, either in one area or all over.
  • Unexplained weight loss or fatigue. You may lose your appetite or feel sick.

An image showing blood in poo, symptom of bowel cancer 
An image showing changes in bowel habits 
An image showing pain or bloating in tummy 
An image showing the symptoms of bowel cancer- fatigue 

Persistent cough

A persistent cough is a well-known symptom of coronavirus. But it can indicate other conditions, such as lung cancer. If you test negative for coronavirus and your cough won’t go away or is getting worse over time, contact your GP. It’s important to say if your cough isn’t new and you’ve had it for more than four to six weeks.

You should also contact your GP if you:

  • feel short of breath
  • have pain in your chest
  • cough up blood
  • have recurrent chest infections

Problems passing urine (peeing)

Problems peeing are usually caused by conditions other than cancer, for example, a urine infection, which is easily treated. But it’s still important to contact your GP if your symptoms don’t go away.

Problems peeing can sometimes be symptoms of bladder or prostate cancer. Be aware of symptoms such as:

  • needing to pee urgently, or more often
  • not being able to pee when you need to
  • feeling pain when you pee
  • blood in your pee

Other changes and symptoms

Other symptoms you should keep an eye on and flag to your GP include:

  • new skin lesions that look unusual or don’t heal within four weeks
  • changes to an existing mole, such as an increase in size or change in colour
  • vaginal bleeding after sex, between periods or after the menopause
  • mouth ulcers or lumps, sores or patches in your mouth that don’t heal

Don’t put off seeing your GP

The best way to look after your health is to know your body and what’s normal for you. Always flag anything new or unusual that doesn’t go away within three or four weeks to your GP. The sooner you get a diagnosis – whatever your health concern – the sooner you’ll be on the road to recovery.


Nobody likes to think about being diagnosed with cancer. But our health insurance gives you personal cancer care with support at every stage of your treatment for as long as you have a policy with us. Learn more about our health insurance.

Dr Samantha Wild
General Practitioner at Bupa UK

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    • Key signs and symptoms of cancer. Cancer Research UK. www.cancerresearchuk.org, last reviewed November 2017
    • Breast cancer. Oxford handbook of oncology. Oxford Medicine Online. oxfordmedicine.com, updated October 2018
    • Signs and symptoms of breast cancer. Breast Cancer Now. breastcancernow.org, last reviewed August 2019
    • Colorectal cancer. Patient – Professional Reference. patient.info, updated March 2020
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    • Stay at home: guidance for households with possible coronavirus (COVID-19) infection. GOV.UK. www.gov.uk, updated 28 April 2020
    • Lung carcinoma. MSD Manual – Professional Version. www.msdmanuals.com, last updated March 2018
    • Urinary tract infection (lower) – men. Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last reviewed November 2018
    • Prostate cancer. MSD Manual – Professional Version. www.msdmanuals.com, last uped December 2019
    • Urinary-tract infections. BNF. bnf.nice.org.uk, last updated 11 January 2021
    • Urological cancers. Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last reviewed September 2015

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