10 Cancer Symptoms That Women Should not Ignore

By Dr. Hemant B. Tongaonkar in Nanavati Max Institute of Cancer Care , Gynaecological Oncology Program

Apr 24 , 2023 | 8 min read


Mrs. Pai (name changed) was in her late sixties. She was a lively lady with good health and was active in social work. Her day started with yoga and a refreshing time at the laughter club on the beach.

There was only one minor concern, though. She was experiencing sudden fullness while eating meals. Her physician asked her to go for a few lab tests, only to discover that she was in the third stage of ovarian cancer.

According to a 2021 report, over 103 women per one lakh have cancer in India. Cancer is more prevalent in women than men, as the incidence of cancer among men is 94 in one lakh males. Cancer should be a matter of concern despite your sound health, as several non-specific cancer symptoms in women usually appear during the later stages of malignancy.

Types of cancer in women

Owing to their reproductive organs, women have a more complex anatomy than men. They undergo several changes throughout life, such as menarche, menstruation, pregnancies, and menopause. These facts may explain why more women get afflicted with cancer than men. The following are common types of cancers in women:

Breast cancer

Breast cancer is the most common among all types of cancers in women. Older women are at higher risk of getting breast cancer. Several risk factors can predispose a woman to breast cancer, including family history. Know the risks of getting breast cancer and try avoiding ones that are under your control.

Race, gender, age, and history of radiation are a few uncontrollable risks of breast cancer in women. The controllable risk factors include being overweight, a sedentary lifestyle, excessive consumption of red meat, and heavy drinking. Early detection is crucial for a better outcome with treatment. A regular self-breast examination and periodic screening with a mammogram are necessary steps to detect breast cancer in the early stage.

Cervical cancer

The most crucial risk factor for cervical cancer is a long-standing human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. It is a sexually transmitted infection resulting from skin-to-skin contact with an HPV-infected partner. Other risk factors include:

  • Obesity
  • Chlamydia infection
  • HIV infection
  • Smoking
  • Weak immunity
  • Prolonged use of contraceptives
  • Multiple sexual partners


Regular cervical screening that involves a PAP smear is helpful for the early detection and treatment of cervical cancer. The cure rate of cervical cancer is encouraging if diagnosed early.

Uterine cancer

Uterine or endometrial cancer affects the inner lining of the uterus. It is a common type of cancer involving a woman's reproductive organs. There is a greater risk of endometrial cancer due to hormonal changes.

Early puberty and delayed menopause also predispose one to the risk of uterine cancer risk. Obesity and polycystic ovarian syndrome are a few common risk factors for uterine cancer. Women with no history of pregnancy are more likely to develop uterine cancer. Regular gynaecological screening with pelvic examination improves the chances of early detection.

Ovarian cancer

Ovarian malignancy involves an overgrowth of ovarian cells and is more common in older women. Late pregnancy (after the age of 35 years) or no history of pregnancy may lead to a higher risk of ovarian cancer. Using only estrogen as a therapy for hormone replacement is also a common risk factor for cancer of the ovaries.

Bloating, pain in the abdomen, an urgency to visit the washroom, and feeling of discomfort or fullness after food are a few common symptoms. Routine screening and awareness of these symptoms help detect ovarian cancer at an early stage.

Lung cancer

The most usual cause of lung cancer is long exposure to air particles or certain chemicals. Smoking is a significant risk factor for lung cancer, though all smokers may not get lung cancer. It is better not to smoke or stop smoking if you want to reduce the chances of lung cancer. Avoid exposure to secondary (passive) smoking to minimise the risk for lung cancer.

Lung cancer accounts for more deaths than breast cancer, although its incidence is lower. Women with a history of heavy smoking over a long period must consider an annual CT scan to rule out the development of lung cancer. Exercising, reducing alcohol intake, and avoiding air pollutants are some precautions to prevent lung cancer risks.

Women and Cancer: 10 critical cancer signs to watch out for

Knowing symptoms and signs of cancer in women helps in early detection and timely treatment. Besides a regular visit to the gynaecologist for annual screening, the following are ten cancer signs you need to notice. Discuss with your doctor if you detect any of the below-mentioned changes:

Difficulty swallowing food - You may experience difficulty swallowing food or drinking water as a symptom of stomach, mouth, or oesophageal malignancy. These cancers can also cause heartburn, indigestion, or choking in some individuals. You may consult a physician if these symptoms persist and accompany other symptoms like vomiting and weight loss.

Lymph node swelling - Lymph nodes are present around the groin, neck, and under the arms. Usually, the swelling of the lymph glands is in response to an infection.

Enlargement of lymph glands is also a common cancer sign in lymphoma and leukaemia. Visit your physician if the swelling of lymph glands is not receding even after three to four weeks.

Changes in nipples and breasts - Regular self-examination of nipples and breasts is vital to notice changes. Look for lumps or dimples in the breasts. Scaling and redness with a sudden discharge and inward-pointing nipples should sound alarm bells. Swelling, pain, itchiness, and thickness of nipples are also other symptoms to look for.

Pain in the pelvic region, abdomen, or back - Constant abdominal and pelvic pain with bloating, cramps, and dyspepsia (indigestion) could indicate uterine or ovarian cancer. However, these symptoms are also common in abdominal infections or indigestion. You should consult your physician immediately if these continue to bother you for several weeks.

Changes in bowel or bathroom habits - Frequent urge to visit the bathroom and persistent bladder pressure may be indicative of a malignancy. You should monitor your bowel habits like bloody stools, frequent indigestion, and nausea. These symptoms may point to colorectal cancer. Visit your physician to rule out other issues like Irritable Bowel Syndrome, haemorrhoids, and premenstrual syndrome.

Unintentional weight loss - Managing body weight by following a healthy routine of diet and exercise is helpful for the prevention of many health issues, including cancer. However, a sudden loss of weight, with no apparent reason, may be due to thyroid issues or cancer. Weight loss is a symptom of pancreatic, stomach, and lung cancer.

Discharge or bleeding between periods - Unusual spotting or vaginal discharge may be a symptom of a vaginal infection. These are also crucial signs of uterine, cervical, or vaginal cancers. Bleeding during menopause or non-period vaginal bleeding is a telltale symptom of cancer. Reddish discharge during intercourse may also point to uterine cancer. Visit your gynaecologist for an in-depth screening if you experience any of these symptoms.

Constant exhaustion and fatigue - It is normal to experience fatigue because of long working hours or heavy physical work. However, a consistent run-down condition or feeling of lethargy that lasts for over a couple of weeks needs further investigation. Ovarian cancer or leukaemia can deplete your energy levels drastically.

Skin changes - Visit a physician if you notice dark moles with an irregular shape, changes in the existing moles, or the appearance of fresh lesions. Non-healing sores or moles that increase in size are a few skin changes to look for. These may be signs of skin cancer we know as melanoma. Regular checking of existing skin lesions should be a routine habit.

Fever, cough, and night sweats - Persistent cough or change in the voice are occasional signs of lung or throat cancer. Although it is normal to experience hot flushes or night-time sweating during menopause, some cancers may also cause night sweats and fever. A fever is a common symptom as cancer progresses to the lymph glands. Visit your physician for proper screening and diagnosis.

Frequently asked questions

1. How does a woman know if she has cancer?

Most symptoms and signs of cancer in women are non-specific. These need appropriate screening for confirmation of malignancy. Several lab investigations are generally ordered to reach a diagnosis. A woman may be diagnosed with cancer through a mammogram, PAP smear, MRI, colonoscopy, blood tests, stool tests, and biopsy tests.

2. Are the symptoms of cancer different in males and females?

Yes, some cancer symptoms in women differ from men, especially in malignancies affecting the reproductive tract. However, both genders show the same symptoms for cancers that affect both men and women.

3. What are the three warning signs of cancer in women?

Persistent pain, irregular bleeding, and lumps in the breast are the three commonest signs of cancer. These signs are specific and not present in all cancers.

4. How does cancer feel in your body?

Cancer involves an overgrowth of cells called a tumour. Tumours can produce discomfort and pain if they are pushing the surrounding organs. Some individuals may feel weak and run down because of cancer. A person with cancer may also experience sudden weight loss.

5. Do blood tests show cancer?

Yes, there are several blood tests to detect cancer cells.These include complete blood count, tests for circulating tumour cells, tumour markers, and blood proteins. Blood tests are specifically helpful in detecting certain cancers like leukaemia, multiple myeloma, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

6. What are the most common cancers found in females?

The most common malignancies in women are breast cancer, uterine cancer, cervical cancer, ovarian cancer, colorectal cancer, and lung cancer.

7. Do cancer symptoms come on suddenly?

The spread of cancer depends upon the rate of tissue growth. Cancer symptoms may appear early if the individual is young. In older people, the symptoms develop slowly. Changes in bladder or bowel habits, bleeding, pain, and lump formation are some early signs of cancer.

8. How do all cancers begin?

Cells in our body go through a life cycle. The old cells die to allow new cells to replace them. In cancer, there is some disturbance in this process. In cancer, the old cells do not die, contributing to an abnormal growth of new cells.

9. What are the early warning signs of ovarian cancer?

Some early signs of ovarian cancer include sudden fullness while eating, bloating, back pain, weakness, and changes in bowel habits.

10. Why are cancers increasing?

Modern-day lifestyles have impacted the rise in cancer statistics. Malignancies have increased to due excessive use of tobacco and alcohol. Modern food habits lead to over-indulgence in fast food, causing obesity. More people are doing desk jobs, leading to a lack of exercise. These are some factors responsible for the rise in the incidence of cancers.