If you’re worried about cancer, here’s how to recognise the possible cancer signs, symptoms & risk factors

Our bodies are great at letting us know if something isn’t right, whether we notice something different with our health or start to feel unwell. So when they speak to us, it’s important we listen.

Whether you’re looking out for a loved one, you’re worried about your health or your risk of developing cancer, or you think you’ve spotted a symptom of cancer, we’re here to help support you.

From the potential causes and risk factors to the signs and symptoms of cancer to look out for, we’ve put together a guide that’ll provide any further information you need, as well as being there to help you determine your next steps.

 What is cancer?

Cancer is a health condition that affects the cells in a specific part of the body. 1 in 2 people will develop some form of cancer during their lifetime.

Cells receive signals from the body telling them when to grow and divide to make new cells. When they’re no longer needed or become old or damaged, the cells receive a signal from the body to stop working and die. However, these signals can sometimes go wrong, causing the cells to become abnormal.

When these abnormal cells grow and divide uncontrollably, this can form a lump, also known as a tumour. The cancerous cells in the tumour can destroy surrounding tissue, including organs.

Cancer sometimes starts in one area before spreading to other parts of the body (metastasis).

Although not all tumours are cancerous, it’s best to rule out the possibility. Your doctor may recommend a biopsy (where a small sample of cells are taken) to examine them under a microscope and look for cancer cells.

Macmillan has more information on cancer and how it develops

How to recognise symptoms of cancer

If you’re concerned about your health, speak to your GP or go to one of our Boots Macmillan Information Pharmacists* for advice. Our team of pharmacists can be on hand to offer you advice but are unable to diagnose you. They can refer you to a GP if they feel it’s appropriate.

Knowing when and how to get a symptom checked is important, so here are three ways to recognise potential symptoms of cancer:

• Ongoing symptoms – a symptom that lasts for more than three weeks

• Unexplained symptoms – a symptom that has no obvious cause, such as finding a new lump or weight loss

• Symptoms that are unusual for you – a change in your body that is unusual for you, such as a change to a mole

Signs & symptoms to look out for

There are more than 200 types of cancer, each with its own symptoms. However, it’s important to remember that these symptoms can be caused by other things.

Because of this, it can be difficult to know whether a symptom is important or not, but if you notice a change in how you feel or how your body works, it’s best to get it checked by your GP. For example, a change doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer, but it could be something that needs treatment.

If you do have cancer, the earlier it’s found, the more likely it is to be cured. If it’s nothing serious, your GP can reassure you.

General symptoms 

Signs and symptoms of cancer vary depending on what part of the body is affected, however there are some general symptoms that can be associated with cancer. Remember, symptoms are often nothing to worry about but if you’re worried about something, it’s best to get checked by your GP.

Unexplained bleeding or bruising

Unexplained bleeding could be a sign that something might be wrong, so it’s important to get any of the following symptoms checked.

• Blood in your urine, stools, vomit or when you cough

• Vaginal bleeding in between periods or after the menopause

• Bruises when you’ve not hurt yourself

Lumps or swellings

If you notice a new lump or it begins to increase in size, speak to your GP. You may want to tell them:

• How long it’s been there

• If it’s painful or uncomfortable

• If it’s getting bigger

It’s important to regularly check your breasts, testicles, underarms and groin for any lumps, swellings or changes. Take note of what is normal for you so it’s easier to spot any changes, it only takes a few minutes.


If you have ongoing pain anywhere in your body that lasts for three weeks or more, it’s best to get checked by your GP.

Severe tiredness

If you experience ongoing severe tiredness (fatigue) for no obvious reason, make an appointment with your GP.

Unexplained weight loss

Tell your GP if you’ve lost weight over the last couple of months without making changes to your diet or doing more physical activity, or if you’ve lost weight without trying to.

Macmillan has more information on the general signs and symptoms to look out for but if you have any of the above symptoms or you’re worried, speak to your GP.

 Bladder & bowel symptoms 

• Bloating or swollen tummy that lasts for three weeks or more • Changes in bowel habits that lasts for three weeks or more • Problems peeing

Although these symptoms can be caused by many different conditions, they could also be a sign of some types of cancer, so speak to your GP if you have any of these symptoms. 

Macmillan has more information on the signs and symptoms that affect your bladder and bowels.

Symptoms that affect your skin

• Moles and skin changes

• Sores that don’t heal

Speak to your GP if you notice any unexplained skin changes, including changes to a mole. If you’re not sure what to look out for, Macmillan has more information on the signs and symptoms that affect your skin.

Symptoms that affect eating

• Swallowing or chewing problems

• Regular indigestion and heartburn that lasts for three weeks or more

If you experience either of these, it’s important to get checked by your GP.

Macmillan has more information on the signs and symptoms that affect eating.

Symptoms that affect speech or breathing

• A cough or hoarse voice that lasts for three weeks or more • Breathlessness

Breathing problems and having a cough can be common and caused by other things. Macmillan has more information on the signs and symptoms that affect speech and breathing, but speak to your GP if you have these symptoms. 

Symptoms in other parts of the body 

• Breast, chest or nipple changes such as the look or feel

• Headaches that are worse than usual or more painful over time

• Penis and testicle problems 

• Vulva and vagina problems 

Speak to your GP or visit your local sexual health clinic if you notice any changes in your penis, testicles, vulva or vagina. You may feel uncomfortable or embarrassed talking about personal problems, but rest assured your healthcare professional is there to help you and make you feel at ease during your appointment. Although some of these symptoms can occasionally be caused by other things, it’s better to be safe and get a professional opinion.

If you’re not sure what changes to look for, Macmillan has a list of potential signs and symptoms of cancer.

Causes & risk factors

Cancer can affect anyone. While the exact causes of cancer are unknown, there are some risk factors that can increase your chance of developing it. This can include two or more of your close relatives, (such as a parent or sibling) having had cancer, or if you’ve been diagnosed with a condition that means you’re at higher risk of getting cancer. 

There’s a handful of things to look out for, so let’s take a look at some of the potential risk factors.

Family history

If someone in your family is diagnosed with cancer, it’s normal to wonder whether you might have an increased risk of developing it. Unfortunately, cancer is very common and to understand how it runs in families, it’s worth knowing the role our genes play, which you can find on Macmillan’s cancer and genetics guide.

Cancer may run in your family if:

• Two or more close blood relatives on the same side of the family had the same type of cancer

• A close relative has had two different types of cancer

• Members of your family have had cancer at an unusually young age

It’s important to remember that many of us may have relatives who’ve had it, but this doesn’t always mean there is a cancer gene in your family, or that you have a higher risk of getting cancer. If you’re worried about the pattern of cancer in your family, speak to your GP. 


Cancer can develop at any age but increasing age is one of the biggest risk factors. People over the age of 65 have a greater risk of getting cancer as cells become more damaged over time.

Macmillan has more information on other potential risk factors such as low immunity, workplace and environmental factors as well as viruses and bacteria.

Lifestyle risk factors & how to reduce them

Making some lifestyle changes  can help reduce your  risk of developing cancer. Examples of these include:

• Eating a balanced diet and maintaining a healthy weight

• Doing regular physical activity

• Limiting your alcohol intake (drinking no more than 14 units per week)

• Quitting smoking, if you do smoke

• Taking extra care with sun exposure

It’s important to note that these may help reduce your risk to some degree, but you can’t reduce your risk completely through your lifestyle.

Tips for talking to your doctor 

If you’re experiencing symptoms that are ongoing, unexplained or unusual for you, it’s important to speak to your GP for advice. If you’re worried about cancer, there a few things that might help you prepare for your appointment:

• Think about what you want to say – you may want to cover what your symptoms are, when they started and anything that makes it better or worse

• Take a loved one for support – having an extra pair of ears to take in the information can be really helpful

• Talk and listen – answer questions honestly, try to make notes during your appointment and ask your GP anything you don’t understand

Make sure you know what will happen next 

Depending on the outcome of your appointment, make sure you’re clear on the next steps, if there are any. You may want to consider:

• If and when you should make a follow-up appointment

• Where and when to expect an appointment with a specialist for a biopsy

• Who you can contact for further support or information, should you need it

Remember, if you’re worried about anything it’s best to get it checked.

*Subject to pharmacist and consultation room availability.