Common Cancer Symptoms Women Often Ignore

Before you ignore a persistent cough or bloating, you may want to have your doctor to check it out. What may seem only slightly abnormal could be much more serious. A 2014 study of 4,858 adults found that more than half experienced red flags that may have indicated cancer, but just 2 percent believed cancer was a factor.Cancer is typically easier to treat when found early and before it spreads. Here are some common cancer symptoms women are likely to ignore:

Bloating or abdominal weight gain

“Abdominal bloating is often ignored because we all think we’re getting fat as we age,” says Dr. Kelly Manahan, Gynecologic Oncologist at our hospital near Atlanta. “The difference between bloating from ovarian cancer and bloating from regular weight gain is that the bloating from ovarian cancer is persistent and lasts for several weeks and does not get better.”


This can be described as feeling exhausted without reason. Any time you feel drained and getting more sleep doesn’t help, talk to your doctor. “Many women may relate it to a busy day at work or chasing the kids,” says Dr. Rabih Bechara, Chief of Interventional Pulmonology at our hospital near Atlanta. “But it could mean more.” Fatigue is a common symptom of cancer because cancer cells sap much of the body’s energy supply.

Pelvic or abdominal pressure

Many women confuse pressure with abdominal pain, but it is more like a heaviness in the pelvis or abdominal area. “If a woman has carried a pregnancy, and you ask if it feels like the baby’s head is down, that’s how pressure feels,” says Dr. Manahan. “For women who have not been pregnant, the feeling is comparable to having a bowling ball in your pelvis.” Ovarian and endometrial cancers often cause pelvic or abdominal pressure or pain.

Chronic cough or chest pain

Several types of cancer, including lung tumors, may cause symptoms that mimic a bad cough or bronchitis. A cough that does not go away may be a sign of lung cancer. “Some women just think they are catching something from their children,” says Dr. Bechara.

Unusually heavy or painful periods or bleeding between periods

Any bleeding after menopause, even if it’s small, should be evaluated by a doctor, says Dr. Manahan. “In any pre-menopausal woman, if there is a significant change in the frequency of her cycles or the heaviness in her cycles, that should be evaluated.”

Nipple changes

While many women go to a doctor after finding a lump in the breast, some may not pay as much attention to changes in their nipples. But some changes may indicate cancer. “Any non-breast milk nipple discharge, especially if it’s bloody, should be seen by a doctor,” says Dr. Manahan.

Feeling full or unable to eat

Feeling like you’re already full when you haven’t eaten or a dampened appetite may be a symptom of ovarian cancer. “Filling up fast, or feeling like I’ve just had too much to eat today when you haven’t,” says Dr. Manahan. “If you’re eating small amounts and still filling up very fast, that would not be normal.”

Unexplained weight loss

The American Cancer Society reports that unexplained weight loss of 10 pounds or more may be a first sign of cancer. This warning sign is common in patients with pancreatic, stomach, lung or esophageal cancers, especially in advanced stages. “By the time you experience unexplained weight loss, you’re typically very late in the process,” explains Dr. Manahan.

Experiencing one or more of these symptoms does not mean you have cancer, or that you’re even likely to have cancer. But it’s better to discuss the issues with your doctor just to be sure. Even if the symptoms are not cancer-related, seeing a doctor may help you get necessary treatment earlier so you can feel better. “Knowledge is power,” says Dr. Manahan. “The more patients seek out information, the more knowledgeable they are and the better their outcome may be.”

Read more about what women should know about gynecologic cancer.