Cancer signs and diagnosis

Cancer is a condition where cells in a specific part of the body grow and reproduce uncontrollably. The cancerous cells can invade and destroy surrounding healthy tissue, including organs.

Cancer sometimes begins in one part of the body before spreading to other areas. This process is known as metastasis.

1 in 2 people will develop some form of cancer during their lifetime. In the UK, the 4 most common types of cancer are:

There are more than 200 different types of cancer, and each is diagnosed and treated in a particular way. You can find links on this page to information about other types of cancer.

Changes to your body's normal processes or unusual, unexplained symptoms can sometimes be an early sign of cancer.

Spotting cancer

Knowing your body means getting to know what is normal for you. If something isn’t normal for you, you may need to speak to you GP.

Spotting cancer early saves lives.

Have you...

  • noticed blood in your pee?
  • noticed changes to your breasts and you're over 70?
  • been getting out of breath more easily?
  • felt bloated for three weeks or more?
  • been coughing for three weeks or more?
  • noticed blood in your poo?
  • noticed a change to your skin?
  • had heartburn for three weeks or more?

These symptoms could be a sign of many things, but you're not wasting anyone's time by having them checked out.

Seeing your GP

The GP will listen to your concerns and decide if they feel you need to be seen by a specialist at the hospital who can do further tests to investigate your symptoms further.

Your GP has arranged for you to see a hospital doctor (specialist) urgently. This is to investigate your symptoms further. You may have some tests to find out what is wrong and if it could be cancer.

An urgent referral will be processed as quickly as possible you should see a specialist within 2 weeks. Due to COVID-19 you may have to wait longer for your urgent referral. Your first appointment may be over the phone, a video call or at the hospital. Depending on where you live, you might get your appointment directly from your GP surgery, or by phone, post or email.

It’s very important that you attend your appointment.

If you don’t get your appointment details within a week, contact your GP surgery or the Cancer Care Coordinator. Tell them it’s an urgent suspected cancer referral.

Seeing your GP

Going to your appointment

Your appointment letter will include: the time, where to go, who you’re seeing and anything you need to do to prepare. You may be sent straight for tests, or you might speak to a specialist first.

You may need to describe your symptoms again. It could help to write things down in advance.

Handy hints:

  • Make sure you know where you’re going
  • Think about arranging transport, time off work or childcare for the day of your appointment
  • Check if you can take a family member or friend with you for support
  • Allow extra time in case it takes longer than you expect
  • Make sure your mobile phone is charged

Having tests

The appointment letter will include details of any tests you will have and any preparations you need to make. You may need to have more than one test. Call the number on your letter if you have any questions.

Handy hints:

  • Ask how you will get your results, how long it will take and make a note of this
  • The person testing you will not usually be able to tell you your results. You may have to wait to speak to your specialist

This can be a very worrying time and if you feel you need to speak with someone or you need more information you can contact our Cancer Care Coordinator in your area who will be able to signpost you to the right area.

Getting results

Your specialist, or sometimes your GP, will explain your results. You may need to have further tests. The time it takes to receive your results varies – you may have to wait several weeks.

Handy hints:

  • If you have another appointment, check if you can take a family member or friend with you
  • Bring a pen and paper to make notes
  • If you have been waiting for your results for longer than expected contact your GP surgery
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions

Remember! More than 9 out of 10 people referred this way are not diagnosed with cancer. This figure refers to urgent 2 week referrals in England.

Sometimes it’s difficult to know what to ask your specialist. Here are a few ideas that might make it easier:

  • If my symptoms get worse, who should I contact?
  • Should I make any changes to the medicines I’m taking?
  • What tests will I need to have?
  • How long will the tests take?
  • What will the tests feel like?
  • Do the tests have any side effects?
  • How long will it take to get my test results?
  • Who will give me the test results?
  • If I have questions after the appointment, who should I ask?

Next steps

We know this is a worrying and difficult time. If you are diagnosed with cancer there is help and support available. You will be given lots of information by your healthcare team.

Please remember we have a Cancer Care Coordinator in your area that can signpost you to the type of help you may need.

If you aren’t diagnosed with cancer, it’s still important that you pay attention to your body. Tell your GP if you notice any new and unusual changes or if your symptoms don’t get better. A health scare makes some people think about improving their general health, for example by keeping a healthy weight or stopping smoking. These things reduce the risk of cancer.

Where to get more information