Understanding Cancer Series: What are the Signs and Symptoms of Cancer? Part 1

What are signs and symptoms?

Signs and symptoms are what doctors use in figuring out what could possibly be wrong with a patient.  When patients go to doctors, they often report changes that they or other people have noticed about them by telling their story.  We call this process history taking and more than laboratory tests, history taking is the most important step in finding out the patient’s problem.

Signs and symptoms often, but not always, signal that they there may be something wrong with a patient.  A SYMPTOM is something that is felt by the person who has them while a SIGN is something which is noticed by another person.

Examples of Signs and Symptoms

Signs Symptoms
Change in color of the skin

Fast breathing

Change in appearance of a mole


Lack of appetite

Feeling of fatigue


This is often a double-edged sword.  The good thing is that not because a person has any of the common signs and symptoms of cancer means that the patient has cancer.  However, because these signs and symptoms may not be unusual at all, many patients may not be alerted that there could be something wrong because they dismiss the problem as simple.

Signs and symptoms of cancer depend on several factors

–       its location

–       size

–       whether it has already affected other structures or not

–       whether the cancer has already migrated to another part of the body.

Some patients may present with early stages of cancer (and therefore be still curable) while others may present with already advanced stages of cancer (may not be cured anymore but not always).  One question that has often been asked of me is “Why did it happen so quickly?”

The Man Who Dropped in Front of the Audience

A man in his 60’s was rushed to the emergency room.  While delivering his speech, he suddenly stopped, rolled his eyes upward, fell on the floor and started convulsing.  He suddenly developed a seizure (more commonly known as an epilepsy) and remained unconscious.  A CT scan of the brain was done revealing, the patient was noted to have a large mass in the brain likely to be a tumor.

On further testing, he was noted to have a tumor in the lungs.

A biopsy of this tumor revealed it to be lung cancer.  The tumor in the brain is likely a metastatic lesion (lung cancer that has migrated to the brain.  This patient does not have lung and brain cancer simultaneously.  His lung cancer has already metastasized/transferred to his brain which puts him in the category of Stage IV lung cancer).

“Why Did Everything Happen So Quickly?”

This patient’s cancer did not happen quickly.  Cancers generally take years to develop and grow.  It is unfortunate that the patient only developed symptoms very late in his disease (when the cancer has already transferred).  The reason is that the patient’s tumor in the lungs was located in an area where there is a lot of room for expansion.  His tumor did not impinge on any structure to cause any sign or symptom such as cough or pain.  The tumor in his lungs probably existed for several years but was not bothering him until it has already migrated to the brain.  The presence of the tumor in his brain stimulated the brain cells enough to cause him to develop a seizure.

Signs and symptoms of cancer can mimic those of common and innocuous problems.  Some cancers may grow in the body without any manifestations at all.  Organs such as the stomach, large intestines and lungs have a lot of room to accommodate the cancer allowing them to remain silent for a very long period.  At other times, some tumors are just so aggressive that even while they are still very small, they are already growing simultaneously in another part of the body and they produce symptoms only when in this other location.  This is what happened to the above patient.

On the other hand, there are tumors that can produce signs and symptoms while they are still very small.  A small tumor may cause bleeding in any part of the body if it is eroding a blood vessel or it may cause pain if it is impinging on nerves.  A patient with tumor in the large intestines can present with blood in the feces.  A small tumor in the neck may also be readily noticed because it can bulge early on.  A small tumor in the brain can cause a mimic a patient having a stroke.

Denky Dela Rosa

About Denky Dela Rosa

I am a Doctor of Medicine. My specialty is Internal Medicine (Doctor for adults) with subspecialty in Medical Oncology (Cancer). I am also a Certified Holistic Health Coach graduating from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition, New York City

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