Doctor talking to the patient

According to the American Cancer Society, about 2 million people will get a cancer diagnosis in 2024. But how exactly do you find out you have cancer? Are there always signs and symptoms? Read below to find out more.

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Cancer Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of cancer vary by person and by cancer. Some common symptoms of cancer may include:

  • A nagging cough or hoarseness.
  • A sore that does not heal.
  • Changes in bowel or bladder habits.
  • Indigestion or difficulty swallowing.
  • Obvious changes in a wart or mole.
  • Thickening or a lump in the breast or elsewhere.
  • Unusual bleeding or discharge.

While these symptoms can be caused by an illness or other problems, call your doctor if you have any concerns. And always call your doctor if symptoms last longer than two weeks.

Cancer Screenings

A cancer diagnosis may begin with a regular screening test. Some cancers develop without symptoms or only show symptoms after the cancer has grown and spread. Because of that, routine screenings play a vital role in early detection.

Early detection of cancer can increase your chances of beating the disease. Cancer screenings include:

  • A physical exam to check for lumps or unusual feelings.
  • Genetic screening tests to identify inherited cancer genes.
  • Imaging tests to check the inside of your body for growths.
  • Lab tests on blood, tissue, or urine samples.
  • Screening tests for breast, colon, gynecologic (breast and cervical), lung, melanoma/skin, and prostate cancers. Talk to your doctor about which tests you should have.

How Is Cancer Diagnosed?

Whether you have symptoms or not, you should always go to your primary care doctor for an annual wellness checkup. If you have symptoms, the doctor may order one or more of the following:

  • A biopsy to collect sample cells for testing.
  • Imaging tests such as CT scans, PET scans and MRIs to look at your bones, organs, and more.
  • Lab tests to identify abnormalities in your blood or urine.

Visit the American Cancer Society’s website for a list of tests commonly used to look for and diagnose specific cancers.

Doctors can identify cancer cells by looking at them under a microscope. They use a combination of tests, procedures, and family history to diagnose cancer.

Stages of Cancer

Once you are diagnosed with cancer, your oncology team will work with you to develop a treatment plan. Your plan will depend on the stage of your cancer.

There are a number of ways to determine a stage of cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, most systems used to stage cancer include information about:

  • The size and location of the tumor.
  • Whether the cancer has spread.
  • How abnormal the cancer cells appear.

Staging cancer is important because it helps determine the best type of cancer treatment for you.

Getting a cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming and sometimes confusing. But you and your loved ones are not alone in this journey — your cancer care team will be there to guide you every step of the way. Be sure to ask questions, take notes, and use support groups and other resources to help you get through this trying time.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

About UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

When you are facing cancer, you need the best care possible. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides world-class cancer care, from diagnosis to treatment, to help you in your cancer battle. We are the only comprehensive cancer center in our region, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. We have more than 70 locations throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, with more than 200 oncologists – making it easier for you to find world-class care close to home. Our internationally renowned research team is striving to find new advances in prevention, detection, and treatment. Most of all, we are here for you. Our patient-first approach aims to provide you and your loved ones the care and support you need. To find a provider near you, visit our website.