General symptoms

General symptoms

Being referred to a specialist does not mean that you have cancer. Very few people who are referred to a specialist actually have cancer. However, it is important that you are checked quickly to find out. If you do have cancer, spotting it early can mean treatment is easier and more likely to be successful.

Some symptoms that might be caused by cancer are not specific to a body area. Some of these general symptoms can be caused by many different cancers, whereas others can be related to a particular cancer. Sometimes general symptoms occur alongside other symptoms or signs of cancer.

In particular, the following general symptoms may sometimes be caused by cancer if they can't be explained by another cause:

  • weight loss

  • loss of appetite

  • a swollen and painful leg caused by a blood clot deep inside a vein (called deep vein thrombosis or DVT).

If you have any of these symptoms, your GP should check for any other symptoms or signs that might be caused by a particular cancer. If you have weight loss or appetite loss, you should be offered investigations or an appointment to see a cancer specialist within 2 weeks. You might also be offered an appointment if you have a DVT that cannot be explained by another cause.

Other general symptoms that may sometimes be of concern if they can't be explained by another cause include severe tiredness, fever and infection that is long‑lasting or keeps returning.

If you have tiredness, weight loss or appetite loss that your GP doesn't think is caused by anything else, and you have ever smoked and are 40 or over, you should be offered a chest X‑ray, which should be carried out within 2 weeks, to check for lung cancer or a type of cancer called mesothelioma (which can affect the lining of the lungs and chest). You should also be offered it if you have these symptoms, are 40 or over and have been exposed to asbestos, to check for mesothelioma.

You should also be offered a chest X‑ray, which should be carried out within 2 weeks, to check for lung cancer or mesothelioma if you are 40 or over, have 2 or more of the following symptoms and your GP doesn't think that they are caused by anything else:

  • cough

  • shortness of breath

  • chest pain

  • tiredness

  • weight loss

  • appetite loss.

You may be offered a blood test (carried out within 2 days) to check for leukaemia (which is cancer of the white blood cells) if you have long‑lasting tiredness, a fever, bleeding or an infection that hasn't got better or keeps returning and your GP doesn't think it is caused by anything else.

You may be offered an appointment to see a cancer specialist within 2 weeks to check for lymphoma (this is cancer of the lymphatic system, which includes things like your lymph glands that help to fight infection) if you have swollen glands. Your GP will also take into account if you have other general symptoms, such as fever, night sweats, itchy skin, weight loss or pain in your lymph glands when you drink alcohol, which might help them decide whether to refer you.

If you are 50 or over and have weight loss and you don't have any visible bleeding from your bottom, you should be offered a test to check for traces of blood in your faeces (also called stools) – this can help check for possible cancer of the colon or rectum. For more information see test results.

If you are a woman with weight loss or tiredness that isn't caused by anything else, you may be offered a blood test (called a CA125 test) to check for cancer of the ovaries. For more information see test results.

Some general symptoms are caused by problems with the brain and nervous system. If you are having problems with movement and balance, your memory and thinking, or with pain and tiredness and your GP has assessed you and thinks that you have problems with your nervous system that are gradually worsening, you may be offered a scan (to be carried out within 2 weeks) to check for cancer of the brain or central nervous system.

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