Cancer patients reveal the symptom that made them think something might be wrong

Being diagnosed with cancer is one of the scariest things imaginable. But a cancer diagnosis doesn’t have to be a death sentence. There is hope for recovery, especially with early detection. That’s why it’s so important to listen to your body when it tells you something is wrong.

Over on Quora, hundreds of people answered the questions What symptoms did you notice before being diagnosed with cancer? and If you’ve had cancer, looking back, what was your very first symptom that you didn’t think was one? Check out some of their stories below…which hopefully will act as an essential reminder to listen to our bodies and not put off getting checked out when we feel anything might be off.

1. “I noticed that every time I ate, I had to poo. I didn’t think anything about it until I did some hard drinking one weekend. On Tuesday, I went to the ER and was diagnosed with a swollen pancreas and oesophagal bleeding. I was admitted to the hospital and then found I had Stage III pancreatic cancer. It took me four years and 119 lbs, but I’ve been cancer-free for 3 1/2 years.”

2. “I was chewing ice a lot! This was new for me. My MD said it could be because of anaemia, so he gave me a blood test. Yup, I had anemia. He wanted to know where my blood was going, so he suggested a colonoscopy. I was not thrilled, but said, ‘OK.’ It came back positive for rectal cancer. I had radiation, chemotherapy, and three surgeries over the next 18 months. Permanent colostomy now. But I’m alive! It’s been 4+ years now. ALWAYS say ‘yes’ to tests your MD wants to run, especially the dreaded colonoscopy (which, by the way, isn’t that bad because you’re unconscious for it)!”

3. “My Mom gave me a shirt as a gift. When I took off the one I was wearing to try it on, she spotted a black mole on my back that was nearly an inch long and irregularly shaped like a map of New Guinea. I’d noticed it weeks before and was ignoring it. She said, ‘You make an appointment with my dermatologist right now!’ You don’t argue with my Mom. So I went. The doctor cut it out immediately, and the pathologist’s report came back: malignant melanoma. Luckily, it was in situ (editor’s note: meaning it hadn’t spread). My mother gave me life, again.”

4. “I had a throbbing sensation at the back of my head. It only lasted maybe 3–5 seconds, but I felt it whenever I strained (like to lift something heavy) or when I tilted my head down. It began happening more and more frequently, so I went to see my nurse practitioner. At first, he thought neck spasms might be causing it, but he ordered an MRI based on the frequency. The MRI revealed an almost 4cm brain tumor in my cerebellum. When it was excised and biopsied, it was determined to be Medulloblastoma — the most common brain tumor in children but extremely rare in adults, especially women. I was 38. I had my third tumor removed on 10/2023. So far, so good! The Lord has blessed me time after time!”

Person with a shaved head flexing their arm muscle, smiling at the camera, wearing a tank top

5. “I peed. A lot. Frequently. At first, they tested for diabetes, but that wasn’t it. Long story short, they found a tumor; I had radiation therapy to get rid of it, and that tumor hasn’t come back for 30 years!”

6. “I had swollen glands in my neck that hurt badly to the touch, but otherwise, I did not feel sick. I assumed I just had a seasonal bug, but it was nothing like I had ever experienced. One year later, after my diagnosis of uterine cancer, it was explained to me that the lymph nodes can swell up as an early reaction to abnormal cell activity, even if elsewhere in the body. About three months before my diagnosis, I started running a low-grade fever, which was quite unusual for me. I was unaware of it until I got my annual flu shot, and my doctor told me to return in a week when my fever was gone. The fever didn’t go away. Later, it was explained as a ‘cancer fever,’ which some people get — another natural defense mechanism of the body.”

“Then, about two months before my diagnosis, I started experiencing severe lower back pain and pelvic cramps. That is what ultimately led me to my ob-gyn. It was a tricky diagnosis. Even a biopsy did not indicate cancer, but the doctor decided to perform a D&C as an extra measure, and that is how the cancer was found. Surgery and radiation were the treatment plans. That was three years ago. I just had a PET SCAN, which showed I am now cancer-free, but I remain under surveillance for two more years.”

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7. “My friend Cathy was probably late 40s or early 50s. She and her husband wanted to live off the grid and participate in the world only on their terms. One day, she and her husband came down the mountain to visit; they lived two hours north. She mentioned that they were about ready for her husband to quit his job, and then they’d sell everything and start over in another state.”

“‘Before I tell him to quit, I’d like to get your opinion,’ she said. ‘Let’s go into the bathroom. I want to show you something.’This wasn’t something I expected or anticipated. She lowered her pants and had me look just above her buttocks. There was a three-inch growth that resembled a worm. It was large, thick, and angry-looking.‘Don’t let him quit his job yet,’ I said. ‘You need a doctor first. Do it while you still have insurance.’‘What do you think it is?’‘That’s way above my pay grade,’ I said. I’m not medical in any way, shape, or form.’The next week, she saw her primary care doctor, who turned her over to a specialist, which kind, I don’t know.‘Thanks for telling me to see the doctor,’ she said. ‘He’s going to hang in until we get to the bottom of this.’My friend had anal cancer. Because she wanted to handle her healing herself, she went with a natural approach and ate only things with no mothers and no faces and watched only old screwball comedies on TV. In three years, she went from an 85% survival rate to terminal. By the time she went back to a ‘normal’ doctor, she was inoperable and in tremendous pain. Hospice wouldn’t provide her with enough pain medication to control her pain. It was a horrible death.In a nutshell, noticing something unusual needs to be investigated. Only you really know your body; keep looking for answers.”

8. “I had a sharp pain in my left breast throughout one day last summer. I never had this before or since. But this pain made me think I should check my breasts as I never do. To cut a long story short, I found out I had HER2 +++ breast cancer in my left breast. Surgery, chemo, radiotherapy, and injections…and I’m back at work nine months later. Hoping all will be well.”

Healthcare worker holding up an X-ray film

9. “It was 2016. I started a walking program—10,000 steps daily. After six weeks, I noticed a nagging ache in my lower back. It persisted for about three weeks, and I thought I’d pulled a muscle. I was also an avid popcorn addict. One Saturday evening, I ate a bag of microwave popcorn. By midnight, I was in agony. I told my adult daughter (an RN) I was going to the ER to be treated for diverticulitis — it runs in my family. She told me not to tell the ER my ‘self-diagnosis,’ and I said, ‘Of course not. I’m going to tell him my symptoms, and he’s going to tell me I have diverticulitis.’ I still remember the shock when the ER doctor came in and said, ‘Well, I have some bad news. It’s not diverticulitis (I had not mentioned the condition to him). I’m certain it’s ovarian cancer, and we have a specialist coming in to see you. She’ll be here within a few hours. It was a Sunday morning. She was there before 8 a.m.”

“Today, I’m a six-year ovarian cancer survivor because it was detected early, aggressive treatment was started immediately, and I had the support of my family and an incredible medical team. (My oncologist is Dr. Hope! Isn’t that the best possible name?)”

10. “At 33, I did a self-exam after taking a shower and found a lump. It didn’t seem really big, but enough in size that I knew it was unusual. I was in bed with my then-husband and asked him if he felt it. He did and said he would call the doctor the next day and set up an appointment. We had three small children in elementary school, so I got them up and off to school. After they left, I did a double-check to make sure I wasn’t imagining things and found a much larger lump on the baseline of my breast. Breast cancer runs in my family, so I was pretty sure what I found was breast cancer. I tried to stay upbeat until I got the official diagnosis, but deep down, I knew I was in for a rough road. I was correct it was stage 3 cancer. That was 22 years ago, and I’m still here.”

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“Five years later, I had another diagnosis of cancer, but it was caught early, and it was stage one. I didn’t feel that one — it was found on a mammogram. But months before, I felt extremely tired and had trouble staying awake during the day. I always wondered if that was a sign that something wasn’t right with my body. The tiredness got better once my treatments were finished. Who knows. I am blessed to be here still, though!”

11. “All I had was a mouth ulcer. It wasn’t even particularly painful, but then my cat started acting oddly — sniffing at my mouth, pressing her head under my chin. I went to see my GP and three weeks later was diagnosed with carcinoma. Sadly, my cancer had been growing for months inside the muscle of my tongue. I’d had a few odd symptoms during that time, but nothing that gave me any indication it was cancer. If I hadn’t gone to the doctor when I did, I wonder how long I’d have waited. I’ve heard stories about animals sensing cancer and other illnesses but never really believed it until now!”

12. “For five years, I had occasional bright red blood in my poop. Dr. Google said I had hemorrhoids, so I never thought much about it after that. It was only when I developed uterine cancer that the CT scan showed a 4cm tumor in my colon. At that point, it was already stage 3, and I thank god for the uterine cancer (Stage 1, cured), or I would likely be dead from the colon cancer. Never, EVER trust Dr. Google and get any bleeding checked, no matter how small.”

Doctor listening to patient's heart with stethoscope during medical examination

13. “I had a fungal infection under my thumbnail. It was no big deal, but it was annoying because it was unsightly and did not respond to any medication, even very expensive ones. I treated it for eight months without results. During a routine exam, my PSA levels were high; upon retesting, they were normal, then a month later, they were high again. The suspicion was that I had prostate cancer, but an ultrasound revealed that I had bladder cancer and a separate kidney cancer. Stage 3 for both. The removal of my kidney, three procedures to burn away the bladder cancer, six rounds of chemotherapy, and heaps of MRIs and cystoscopies took a year. I have been cancer-free now for ten years.”

“The strange part was that despite not being treated for the duration of my cancer treatment, the fungus infection healed up all by itself. That fungal infection was the only indication that I had a serious problem.”

14. “Not me, but my husband. I noticed that his breath had become unpleasant. The problem increased until his breath was foul. I insisted he see a dentist, and the dentist found no problem with his mouth. Getting him to make an appointment with his doctor for no reason other than bad breath was hard, but eventually, he went. The doctor sent him for some tests that are routine for a man of his age. When the test results came back, she sent him for a biopsy on his prostate. The test results could have indicated cancer or only an infection. The biopsy proved that he had prostate cancer. After the surgery, his breath returned to normal.”

15. “During the last 4-5 years, I have had a dry cough a few times a year. I would cough for a few days, and then the cough would go away. Finally, in October 2022, I went to a doctor to discuss my cough. She did an x-ray of my chest and found a growth between my heart and lung. Further investigation (a few biopsies later) showed that I had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. The cardiovascular surgeon, pulmonologist, and oncologist all said that the coughing was most likely caused by the tumor pressing against a nerve (I think it’s called the vagus nerve). Since starting chemotherapy, I no longer have the cough.”

“December 2023 UPDATE: One year has passed. I had six months (12 infusions) of hard chemotherapy, and as of the end of September 2023, I was told that the cancer was in remission.”

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16. “The very first symptom was pain in my lower abdomen. It came and went, and I convinced myself it wasn’t serious. On some level, though, I knew something was wrong. This went on for a couple of years. I began to lose weight uncontrollably. I blamed it on how much exercise I was doing. I started eating more. I stopped being very active and still became scarily skinny. I thought it was weird that my pants felt so snug around my waist. It was because of the skinniness that I saw it. I was lying on my back, and when I lifted my head, I could see a huge lump in my lower abdomen. I went to the ER because it freaked me out. They referred me to an oncologist. It was a huge (20x10cm) tumor on my right ovary (mucinous adenocarcinoma). That is how I first noticed my ovarian cancer. It was a long journey, but that was five years ago, and I have recently been declared CURED!!!”

Healthcare professional analyzing a CT scan of lungs on computer screens

17. “I was the only one who noticed my husband had a strong offensive odor ( to me) that seeped into his clothing, bedding, and soft furnishings. I asked his doctor about it and only got a strange look. After three years of this, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The odor disappeared after surgery cured him of cancer.”

18. “Mine was really odd: I noticed a small FLAT spot on the side of my breast that didn’t go away. I got it sampled, and it was breast cancer. So it’s not always a discernible lump — sometimes it’s a flat place or an actual depression in the skin. And no one had ever told me that, so please, if you notice a change — any change — in your body, please see a doctor as soon as you can.”

19. “On the day of my college farewell party, I (20 then, now 22) distinctly remember asking my roommate, ‘Do I look fat? I think my belly is getting bigger; It feels tight.’ After a month, I started facing problems with breathing; I thought my asthma was back (I had a history of childhood asthma). I (with my mom) went to a doctor, saying I felt uncomfortable and my stomach looked big. He told my mother, ‘You know today’s generation, they sleep late, wake up late, don’t eat on time. It’s just acidity, madam.’ Boom, one week later, I was diagnosed with third stage ovarian cancer. It was a kilogram of tumor. My periods were very regular and I had no early symptoms. I advise you to get yourself checked for cancer. It really is late when you’re diagnosed.”

20. “I honestly didn’t notice the ones that should have been obvious: fatigue and night sweats. To be honest, even if I had seen those symptoms listed somewhere, I wouldn’t have expected that at age 22, non-Hodgkins lymphoma would be the cause. Then, one Saturday morning, as I attempted to move my bowels, the tumor perforated my intestine, releasing half-digested food into my gut. This is called peritonitis and is equivalent to a burst appendix. The pain was immediate, intense, and enough to get me to an emergency room. Thirteen weeks later, I had completed chemotherapy AND my bachelor’s degree. I’m 58 now.”

Raised fist wearing a bracelet with motivational text

21. “I was exceptionally tired. The tiredness was like nothing I had ever felt in my 42 years; it made me feel sick to my stomach. I was also pale, although I didn’t realize it until someone asked me if I was ill. The most obvious sign was bleeding when I used the bathroom. It had started as an occasional spot/drop in my underwear (Had I scratched myself? Was it vaginal spotting?). Later, there was a blood spatter in the toilet. I finally had a colonoscopy and was diagnosed with colon cancer (I assumed I was too young — not at all, it turns out). Had surgery and chemo. That was 21 years ago.”

“But, four years after that cancer, I was diagnosed with very early ovarian cancer. It turns out colon/ovarian/ breast are related in some people. That cancer had no symptoms. It was found because I knew the connection between the three cancers and did aggressive follow-up. The doctor spotted an ovarian tumor so small that it couldn’t be felt if he were to examine the ovary. Turns out my peritoneum was loaded with tiny tumors. Lesson: colon cancer w/symptoms saved my life. I never would have found the ovarian if I hadn’t been doing serious follow-up. That cancer was 17 years ago.”

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