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Vague cancer signs that people often ignore

July 31, 2023 Word for Word Media 0Comment

 Dr Daleen Geldenhuys elaborates on the most common vague cancer signs and the reasons why people ignore them.

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When I meet a new patient, we always start to talk about who they are; important observations are made regarding age, life partners, children, parents, and relationships. When the patient and family are more relaxed, I would ask about symptoms that led to the first consultation with a healthcare practitioner. The patient will often be interrupted by a family member stating that I, the doctor, should have all the information already. But the most important part is to listen to the story unfold. The stories (with vague cancer signs) often unfold in the following manner.


Pain and discomfort are often the first symptoms and often attributed to moving a heavy object or getting older. As South Africans, our perception of old age is sometimes as young as 40. Even at 70+ years of age, if you suddenly start having pain and never had it before, it needs to be checked.

Indigestion, bowel changes, swallowing difficulties

Indigestion is a vague but common symptom. Irritable bowel syndrome and constant heartburn are managed by the newest diets, such as intermittent fasting or high protein diets, found on the internet, or given by well-meaning friends who have similar symptoms. 

Alternating constipation and diarrhoea are often attributed to diet and stress. Difficulty and pain when swallowing solid and liquids often lead to a diet change rather than investigation.

Night sweats, anxiety, weight loss, fatigue

Vague symptoms such as night sweats and anxiety may be interpreted as menopause. Unexpected weight loss is usually greeted with delight as we all have an idea of the perfect body weight. Weight that is lost too quickly is never the result of a fantastic diet.

Tiredness and fatigue are often the most common presenting symptoms and again attributed to stress in the family or workplace but may be a symptom of blood or iron loss.

Change in voice, persistent cough

A change in the character of your voice and a cough that never gets better despite different courses of antibiotics may be more sinister than just a postnasal drip. 

Hypertension and adult-onset asthma

Sudden onset of hypertension and even the diagnosis of adult-onset asthma should be investigated.

Lumps and enlarged lymph nodes

Lumps and enlarged lymph nodes are noticed but may be ignored because they aren’t painful. The lumps may also be slow-growing, allowing you to think that it can’t be threatening. 

Skin rashes and lesions

The skin is an organ that is often ignored. Everyone is aware of dark, strangely shaped moles that may represent a melanoma, but ignore other rashes assuming that it represents allergic reactions. Skin lesions should be taken seriously as it may represent or even precede cancer.

Personality changes

Change in personality, forgetting words and stroke-like symptoms, such as weakness on one side of the body, may all be early symptoms of a tumour affecting the brain.

Observations by other family members and friends who haven’t seen you for a while may be valuable as those close to you often become accustomed to small changes in your behaviour.


Blood in the urine, sputum, stool, and postmenopausal vaginal bleeding should never be ignored.


Symptoms that don’t improve, even after a visit to a healthcare professional, should be investigated. Routine health checks with your healthcare practitioner are important to diagnose cancer earlier. Don’t ignore a positive family history of cancer. 

My best advice would be not to think that any ache or symptom that doesn’t improve may be normal for your age. Rather pay attention to your body as it may be a vague cancer sign. 

Dr Daleen Geldenhuys

MEET THE EXPERT – Dr Daleen Geldenhuys

Dr Daleen Geldenhuys is a specialist physician and medical oncologist who works at West Rand Oncology Centre at Flora Clinic. She treats patients with all types of cancer and enjoys clinical research, and is a member of SASMO, SASTECS, ESMO and ENETS.

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