Common Symptoms of Most Common Cancers

Common Symptoms of Most Common Cancers

This article discusses common symptoms associated with the most common cancers (i.e. tumors of the lung, breast, prostate and colon).According to the American Cancer Society and National Institutes of Health, the most common cancers in the US for men and women are:


  • Prostate (29% or about 240,000)
  • Lung (14%)
  • Colorectal (9%)
  • Urinary Bladder (6%)
  • Melanoma (5%)
  • Kidney (5%)
  • Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (4%)
  • Oral & pharynx (3%)
  • Leukemia (3%)
  • Pancreas (3%)


  • Breast (30% or about 230,000)
  • Lung (14%)
  • Colorectal (9%)
  • Uterine (6%)
  • Thyroid (5%)
  • Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (4%)
  • Melanoma (4%)
  • Kidney (3%)
  • Ovary (3%)
  • Pancreas (3%)

The percentages represent the percent of new cancers diagnosed. For example, about 240,000 men were diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2011 making it the most common new cancer in men. About the same number of women was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011 making it the most common new cancer in women.

The above data is in contrast to the deaths that occur each year due to cancer. According to the American Cancer Society and National Institutes of Health, the most common cancers causing death in the US for men and women are (as estimated for 2012):


  • Lung (29% or about 87,750)
  • Prostate (9%)
  • Colorectal (9%)
  • Pancreas (6%)


  • Lung (26% or about 72,590)
  • Breast (14%)
  • Colorectal (9%)
  • Pancreas (7%)
  • Ovary (6%)
  • Leukemia (4%)
  • Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (3%)
  • Uterine (3%)


Considering the above list, it makes sense to spend the most amounts of time and money on prevention, screening and education for the commonest cancers. Recognition of symptoms that may be associated with these common cancers is therefore very important as it may serve as an early link to diagnosis and treatment. With only a few exceptions, almost all cancers are curable and/or quite treatable if detected early enough. Attention to symptoms that may be associated with a cancer is therefore a very important topic for human health.

As stated above, lung cancer is the most common cause of death from cancer, now in both men and women. There are many possible symptoms of lung cancer and when these occur in someone at risk for lung cancer this makes them even more worrisome. There are several different kinds of lung cancer but the most common risk and greatest risk occurs in someone who has a history of smoking. Common symptoms of lung cancer include:

  • Chest discomfort or pain
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath (e.g. “I can’t catch my breath” or “I get winded”)
  • Hemoptysis (coughing up blood or blood-tinged mucus)
  • Weight loss
  • Weakness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

With an advanced lung cancer or tumor that has grown significantly with spread, more severe symptoms can occur such as:

  • Weakness of the voice/hoarseness from vocal cord paralysis
  • Swelling of the head and neck from blockage of great veins in the chest
  • Seizures
  • Confusion
  • Personality changes
  • Bone Pain
  • Bone fractures
  • Sudden eye changes
  • Firm and enlarged lymph nodes around the collar bone, neck and armpit

Any of the above symptoms would be uncomfortable and concerning to most people. When these occur in someone who has smoked for many years this would be more concerning and should prompt investigation as to the cause. Although cancers such as breast and colorectal receive much publicity, the importance of smoking cessation cannot be overemphasized as lung cancer is the most common cause of cancer death. Additionally, smoking has negative effects on almost every organ system.

As listed above, breast cancer is the most common new cancer diagnosed in women and the second leading cause of death in women due to cancer. (Note: these statistics DO NOT mean that 14% of women diagnosed with breast cancer will die from it. The National Institutes of Health estimated there were 2.6 million women alive in the US in 2008 with breast cancer.)

There are many different kinds of breast cancer but most of them have similar patterns of symptoms. The most common symptoms of breast cancer are:

  • Feeling a new lump
  • Nipple discharge
  • Rash of the nipple or breast
  • Swelling or firmness of lymph nodes in the armpit or around the collar bone

Breast Pain is often a feared occurrence however breast pain is almost never a symptom of breast cancer. In a similar way, many of the above symptoms are not necessarily associated with a breast cancer. Most nipple discharge is not the sign of a breast cancer, even when bloody. Most rash of the breast is due to infection, yeast or irritation of the breast and not breast cancer. Most swelling of the breast is associated with menstrual changes and the changes in various hormones that occur over the normal menstrual cycle. Most breast cancers diagnosed are very small or even microscopic. This means that it is actually unusual for a breast cancer to be diagnosed in an advanced stage.

Having any of the above symptoms should still be taken seriously and investigated. Often, these symptoms can be evaluated and only require reassurance by a knowledgeable physician without further testing. The importance of these symptoms is best gauged by considering the risk for breast cancer and the severity of the symptoms. Just as in the evaluation of bloody cough with a long history of smoking is concerning for lung cancer, a new breast lump in a woman with many close relatives with breast cancer should be taken very seriously and thoroughly investigated. Some symptoms that suggest advanced breast cancer are:

  • A breast lump that breaks the skin or bleeds
  • A breast lump associated with firm and enlarged lymph nodes in the armpit
  • A breast lump present for many years and a new severe back pain or bone fracture

All of these scenarios are very worrisome symptoms for advanced breast cancer and require thorough evaluation.

As stated above, prostate cancer is the most common new cancer diagnosed in men and the second leading cause of cancer death in men in the US. The prostate is a gland just under the bladder that surrounds part of the drainage tube of the bladder, the urethra. Swelling of this gland can partially or completely block the outflow of the bladder and function of the urethra. Thus, a key symptom of prostate enlargement or tumor is difficulty urinating. Most men will have some enlargement of the prostate as they age (>50% by the age of 50 years old). However, most enlargement of the prostate is NOT cancer. Furthermore, most men with prostate cancer do not die from it. Because most prostate cancers do not have any symptoms early on and it is a very common cancer, the emphasis is on screening for prostate cancer. The most common way prostate cancer is diagnosed is by feeling enlargement or nodule on rectal examination and by measuring a tumor marker known as PSA in the blood.

Symptoms of prostate cancer may include:

  • Difficulty urinating
  • Bladder or kidney infections
  • Weakness / Fatigue (with anemia possibly)
  • New back pain or fracture

Colon and rectal cancer is both the third most common cancer diagnosis in the US and the third most common cause of cancer death. Great emphasis has been placed on early detection of colon cancer and screening guidelines detail when testing should start and what type of testing should be done. There are people for whom the general population screening guidelines are inadequate because some people get colon cancer younger than age 50 or are at an increased risk for other reasons. Common symptoms of colon or rectal cancer include:

  • Bright red blood in the stool
  • Dark, older blood in the stool
  • Black or tarry appearing stool
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Pain in the pelvis or rectum
  • Constipation
  • Swelling of the abdomen
  • Nausea, Vomiting
  • Visibly Pale (usually from anemia)

The challenge with symptoms such as these is that they are quite non-specific and one could compile a list of at least a hundred possible causes for each of these symptoms other than colon cancer. When several of these symptoms occur together this makes the situation more concerning for colon cancer. A very common error in symptom interpretation is to just say that some blood with a bowel movement is “hemorrhoids.” The average person (as well as many physicians) do not really understand what hemorrhoids are and think that any anorectal complaint or abnormality must be hemorrhoids. Rectal pain, bleeding, or a lump may all be thought of as hemorrhoids by most people. This is a dangerous misconception as these may be signs of colon or rectal cancer and require evaluation by a knowledgeable physician.


  1. Abeloff, M. D. (2008). Abeloff: Abeloff’s Clinical Oncology, 4th ed. (Part II – Section A)Philadelphia,PA: Churchhill Livingstone Elsevier.
  2. Lung cancer: diagnosis and management. Collins LG, Haines C, Perkel R, Enck RE. Am Fam Physician. 2007 Jan 1;75(1):56-63. Review. PMID: 17225705

American Cancer Society: Cancer Facts & Figures 2012.

This article was originally published on September 3, 2012 and last revision and update was 9/4/2015.