The following AskReddit thread asked people to describe the symptoms they originally experienced prior to getting diagnosed with cancer. It’s always important to monitor your health, and hopefully, these kinds of stories can bring light on what it’s like to be a cancer survivor. We thank these brave souls for coming forward and sharing their experiences.
Source list available at the end.
“Leukemia survivor here. The terrifying thing is how ordinary all of the symptoms were. I didn’t even feel sick. I was a little tired, and I had this weird rash on my legs. My lips were chapped and bleeding, but I just blamed it on the dry winter air.
What got me to seek medical attention, though, was the fact that my roommate had found this large bruise on the back of my arm, and I was sure that I hadn’t done anything to injury myself prior. She talked me into seeing a doctor. I was afraid I was going to get laughed out of the doctor’s office for seeking medical attention for a rash and a bruise.
My roommate probably saved my life. Leukemia is a very fast growing cancer, and even a week’s delay would have lowered my survival odds. The bruise, the rash, and the chapped bloody lips were all from internal bleeding. The cancer cells had crowded out the platelets (which were the cells responsible for the clotting blood).
My blood was so thin that I was actually bleeding internally, and I would have been in some serious danger if I had gotten a substantial cut. My immune system was non-existent, and it was for the same reason. The cancer cells had crowded out my healthy immune system cells. Honestly, I’m lucky to be alive.”
“About a month ago, I woke up in the middle of the night with the worst headache possible. I ran to the bathroom to try and make myself sick and that made it even worse. I couldn’t even lie still in my bed. I just writhed around in pain. This was on a Saturday morning.
The headache stayed all day Saturday, all day Sunday, and then all day Monday as well. On Monday afternoon, I finally went to the doctor. He gave me IV fluids and a couple of steroid shots. I felt better and went home.
I recently had an unrelated surgery done, and I had just spent a whole week vomiting up everything that I had eaten or drank from the anesthesia. I thought my headaches were from me being dehydrated from all of that.
On Tuesday morning, the headache came right back. I went to the doctor, and he ordered a CT scan of my head. There was a ‘growth.’ He didn’t know what it was, so he made me an appointment in a different hospital with a neurosurgeon.
The next day, I had my appointment and they did an MRI. Turns out, I needed to have surgery. So the day after, I had the surgery done. It was to remove as much of the tumor as possibly (that way, they could also send in for a biopsy).
The biopsy results were not good. I had grade 4 Glioblastoma, which is like the worst kind of brain cancer possible.”
“The first time around, I had started itching my legs a lot. At the end of the day, my socks would be all red with blood. My doctor said that it was dry skin and to moisturize. Next, it was a pain in my chest when doing dips, so I stopped doing those. Then, it started to hurt bench pressing, but it wasn’t that bad yet. Finally, there was a loss of appetite and just generally feelings of terribleness.
On one particularly bad day, I went back to the doctor and told him that I was just feeling awful. Once I said chest pain. Suddenly, it wasn’t just dry skin. I noticed it had been a year to the day since I had first saw him. The next day, my mom and my sister found me at University and got me to a surgeon that afternoon. The next few months were doctors appointments, chemo, and radiation for Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The second time around (which was a year later), I felt a hard lump underneath my armpit. I got into see the oncologist right away, biopsied, and it came back as Hodgkin’s again.
The third time, I just felt a hard lump at the base of my neck and it was Hodgkin’s again.
The fourth time was actually several years later, and I saw a red dot on my shirt. I thought it was a spot of spaghetti sauce since that was what I had had for lunch that day. However, the next day, I saw an identical spot. I went to the bathroom and was able to squeeze a drop of blood from my nipple. That incident got me a quick appointment with my hematologist, who then got me a quick appointment with a breast surgeon. None of the diagnostic stuff worked, though. Seeing as how I’m male, they basically said it was a mastectomy or nothing. If it was something, the treatment would be a mastectomy anyway. So, I had it taken out. It turned out to be DCIS, which was like pre-breast cancer.
The fifth time, I was having a dental cleaning and mentioned a pain in my cheek. The dentist said it looked like a really bad canker. At my next hematologist appointment she asked, ‘Is there anything else?’ So, I mentioned it. She had a quick look and booked me an appointment for an ENT. He took a quick look and said, ‘So, it might be cancer.’ I had a biopsy in the time that it took for him and his team to get ready. That was squamous cell carcinoma. It was stage 1, but because of my medical history, I was receiving the stage 4 treatment. Fortunately, the lymph nodes they removed didn’t show anything, so hopefully, that’s all behind me now.”
“I was 11-years-old at the time, and I would always feel tired. I used to walk to school (about 10 minutes). However, I slowly started to notice that I would need to sit down, take a break, and gather some energy every time. Eventually, my 10-minute walks became a hour and a half as I was having to sit down every three to four steps. Doing that many steps literally felt like I had just ran a marathon. One day, my friend finally said to me (in a completely innocent way as most kids do), ‘You know what I read in a magazine that if you’re feeling tired all of the time, it could mean that you have cancer. Thats probably whats wrong with you.’
Eventually, I would get home and plunk on the couch with zero energy (I couldn’t even walk up the stairs to sleep in my bed). I slept from 4:30PM to 8:00AM every day and was falling asleep in class. I was so pale that I was turning green. I couldnt even eat or anything. My mom thought I had an eating disorder and was just being a lazy kid. One day, in a fit of rage, she dragged me to my doctor to get me a feeding tube.
This doctor had been my paediatrician since birth, and up until then, I had always been a completely healthy kid. He heard a heart murmur. So, he immediately sent me in for some blood tests, and then we would be good to go.
That night, the police showed up at my house with their lights on asking if this was where my family lived. At 11, I was terrified! ‘Why were the police here? Were they going to take me away? What did I do? Im going to jail.’
They told us that our doctor didnt have our updated home phone number, that my blood tests had come back dangerously low, and that they were here to escort me to the hospital.
Once we got there, and after 4 blood transfusions (all done in a single night) and some more tests over the next couple of days, they said that I would’ve died within a few days and that we had just come in at the last minute that they were still able to even helped me. Turns out, it was Leukemia.
Im 28 now, and Ive been off treatment and healthy for 10 years!”
“My perfectly healthy husband noticed some blood in his urine last December and went to the walk-in to see a doctor. He was put on antibiotics for what was thought to be a urinary infection, but it didnt get any better. I should add he (unlike myself) has had regular checkups and annual physicals. Last year, on Christmas Eve we got the news that he had kidney cancer. The surgery was scheduled for January 3rd. I was in the family waiting area at the hospital watching doctors and families come and go. His 2-hour surgery took 4 hours.
The doctor entered the waiting room (but unlike the others who were there), he asked me to follow him into a private area to speak. The tumor was the size of a football. They removed the tumor and a kidney, waited 3 days for pathology, and found out it was stage 4 kidney cancer with nodes in the lungs and lymph nodes.
I’m currently in a clinical trial for an immunotherapy chemotherapy drug at NYU. He only realized something was wrong when he saw the blood in his urine, and again with the test results. Otherwise, he was feeling better and healthier than ever after a big weight loss, which we now know was mostly due to the cancer and not just diet and exercise. We were blindsided.”
“November of last year, I developed this cough that wouldn’t stop. I coughed up blood after Thanksgiving, so I decided it was time to see a doctor. I was diagnosed with pneumonia and given medication. They didn’t work. Eventually, I was sent to a pulmonologist who diagnosed with me with fungal pneumonia, given medication, and (again) they didn’t help. I was then sent to a pathologist who said I probably had cancer and scheduled a biopsy.
By this point, it was March and I was already so weak. I have to use a cane to walk. Even walking 50-feet to the bathroom made me feel so winded, it was like I had just run a marathon or something. I would throw up any food an hour after eating it. I could hardly breathe because my ribs were broken from coughing, and sleeping was nearly impossible because it felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest.
After coming home from the surgery pre-examination. The hospital called sometime that night and told me they have an emergency room set up for me and that I needed to come in immediately because my body was in pretty bad shape. I declined by saying that I would be fine until the surgery, which was in two days. The doctors said that that was foolish and that I would not survive over the weekend.
That night, I couldn’t sleep because my breathing was impossible laying down, so I went to the hospital. My body was septic, and I was really close to dying. I spent two weeks in the hospital where I was eventually diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkins lymphoma.
I underwent chemotherapy and finished that on Halloween of this year. I am 10 days away from knowing if it worked.”
“My knee was always sore. It didnt hurt so much as it was a dull ache. I thought I might have injured it playing sports, so I decided to schedule an appointment with an orthopedist to get it checked out. He took an x-ray, saw what he called a ‘calcium deposit’ on the film, and sent me home.
The next day, I was at work and he called me back after getting my number off of my parents. He let me know that he had scheduled me an appointment at the local hospital for the next day. I had just started to head back to school, so I told him I would rather just wait. But he informed me in a serious tone that I needed to go. I went to the hospital and found the doctor that I needed to see in orthopaedic oncology. Thats when I knew it was much more serious than I had originally thought.
Turns out, I had a rare tumor called chondromyxoid fibroma. I had to have an allograft done to excise it, but it was successful (and thankfully) I haven’t had any complications since.”
“I was getting small seizures commonly known as ‘auras.’ The first one happened at work. Mine started off with smells and were always very volatile. I would smell diesel, kerosene, glue, or something burning. Then came the head rush. I would feel nauseous for a minute, but then I would go back to whatever I was doing. It started happening every couple of days. I was in the process of seeing a neurologist and was just about to get an MRI.
A week or so before I was to go in, I had a complex partial seizure or absence seizure at work and went to the hospital. A mass was confirmed in my temporal lobe. I started getting treated for an anapaestic astrocytoma currently. When I started smelling things that I knew my coworkers couldn’t smell, that was when I knew something was wrong.”
“I started bleeding a tiny bit every day. The doctor thought it was a side effect from the birth control shot that I had just gotten, so we agreed that we would wait and see if it would stop after 3 months. Then I started feeling pain when I had sex. After a while, I also started bleeding during sex. I went for a checkup at the doctor’s. Again, she couldn’t find anything wrong with my lady parts. But, just to be on the safe side, she sent me to go and see a gynaecologist anyway.
The first thing the gynaecologist said was something along the lines of: ‘I see you never got a cervical screening. That’s not very smart of you.’
I was aware of this (which I told her), and she repeated herself several times while I was there. She started examining me and told me that there was a polyp in my uterus and something on my cervix. She took some samples of the tissue and then told me that I would need to have the polyp removed at the hospital.
Four days later, she calls me and tells me that the polyp in my uterus was harmless, but the changes on my cervix is cancer.
From that moment onwards, everything happened so fast. Here I am, almost 4 months later, and the only lady parts I have left are my ovaries and most of my vagina. I say ‘most of’ because they actually had to remove a few centimeters during the surgery.
They also removed some lymph nodes close to my uterus during the surgery and tested them. One of them had a tiny bit of cancer cells. So, I had to have chemotherapy and radiation done on it as well.
From now on, I make sure all of my female friends and relatives know how important those screening tests are. The media tells us almost daily to be aware of breast cancer, but I honestly didn’t know how important it was to also be aware of what was going on with my lady parts.”
“Not a patient, but my mom was one. She started having tons of bowel issues ranging from constipation to diarrhea. She started seeing blood in her stool, and the doctors told her that it was hemorrhoids. A year passed with those same symptoms, but now she was also experiencing pain while she urinated. She went to the doctor again. They told her it was a UTI, gave her some antibiotics, and then sent her back home.
She lost so much weight because of her stomach issues until she finally sought a second opinion with a GI, who immediately ordered a colonoscopy. My mom was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer, and it had spread to her bladder and liver. She was given 4-6 months to live.
She fought bravely for a year, and we lost her in 2015. I promised her and myself that I would share her story to prevent others from going through that. Colon and rectal cancers are preventable and curable if they are found in the early stages. Listen to your body, and know your family history!”
“I had Non-Hodgkins lymphoma. The first thing that I think I noticed was that I would start to feel more and more tired than usual. It got to the point where I’d fall asleep on my way home from work. I’d wake up in the night gasping for breath because it felt like there was something crushing my chest.
Around one week later, I found an odd lump in my neck just above my collar bone. Then, my appetite became really weird. The thought of eating anything that wasn’t pasta, pizza, or chips made me feel physically sick.
It wasn’t until about two weeks after the neck lump had originally appeared that I finally saw a doctor. They ordered a CT scan, and it showed a 12x8x5 mass in my mediastinum.
It seems a bit strange looking back that I didn’t join the dots especially as I had classic b symptoms of weight loss and night sweats. I guess I just kind of made excuses for each new symptom. Luckily, it was caught in time, and I’m just past one year post-chemotherapy!”
“I was in the shower one night when I noticed a lump on my breast. I called my boyfriend to see if he could feel it too, and he could. It was a Friday night, so I made a doctor’s appointment for Tuesday evening. I was pretty sure it was just a cyst or some other benign lump as I was only 30.
My doctor was pretty sure that that was all it was too. He said to come back in a couple of weeks after I had had my period if it still hadn’t gone away.
It didn’t go away, and I ended up going back. He then sent me for an ultrasound to see if it was solid or fluid filled. If it was fluid filled then it was probably just a cyst. It was not. He then booked me in for a mammogram and a biopsy, and he sent a referral to the best surgeon in the province for this type of thing because at this point (no matter what it was), it was something that needed to be removed.
A week or so after the biopsy, I got a phone call from my doctor’s office. They wanted me to come in right after my lunch as soon as they opened. Luckily, I worked downstairs, so this was easy to do.
I knew what he was going to tell me because a good friend of mine worked as his MOA, and we usually went for lunch together. But on that day, she just walked past me and didn’t stop. She was the one who would’ve opened the mail and seen the results for various things first, so she would’ve already known what was up. She later told me that she knew she was going to start crying as soon as she saw me, so it was better to just stay away.
I ended up having a partial mastectomy, then 6 months of chemotherapy and a month of radiation treatment. Now, I’m in my second year of hormone-related therapy, and doing very well.”
“Pediatric brain cancer survivor. I had a few migraines over the course of a few years. I was in the first two weeks of eighth grade, and they started happening really frequently. At one point, I was having them every other day, and they were more than just headaches. I was ultra sensitive to light and sound. I couldn’t eat anything because I was in so much pain, and no amount of Advil would fix it.
It got to the point where the whole left half of my body went numb. My left arm, my leg, and the left half of my tongue even. That all prompted my neurologist to actually schedule an MRI, and they found a golf ball-sized tumor in my right frontal lobe.
Long story short, I got it taken out, had this funky titanium plate put in, got some radiation on the area to make sure nothing grew back, and everything was pretty alright.
I later found out that it was an incredibly rare form of cancer. I had an anaplastic ganglioglioma, and I was told that I was the twelfth person to ever have one and only the third to survive it.
Now, 12 or so years later, that experience has influenced me to get involved in philanthropy in college and was a huge reason why I became a middle school teacher.”
“I was 15 when I went to the hospital with a nasty UTI. The girl in the bed next to me had viral meningitis (which they didnt know), and I somehow ended up catching it. We had became fast friends, sat in each others bed, but I still dont really understand how it all happened exactly.
My health became very poor. I had a whole body MRI to assess the damage, and saw a large mass on each ovary. Yes, I dont have ovaries anymore, but once again, the NHS saved my life.
At 15-years-old, loosing your hair was a big thing at the time, but I looked great in a hat. Im fine with early menopause, but Ive still got problems due to the brain swelling some 15 years later. The NHS is amazing.”
“At first I just felt off. I went to my doctor and said that I knew something was wrong and asked for a blood test. She brushed me off and told me that I was fine. About 10 months later, I started losing weight without trying, and my appetite was weird. I’d be starving and eat like a quarter to a half of a normal portion, and then I would get bored, so I would stop eating. The doctor still said that she didn’t want to do any tests. I was rushed to the hospital one morning because of a weird pain, and sure enough I had developed a disease that had evolved into cancer.”
“I was 13-years-old at the time, and I was having headaches beyond belief even to the point of throwing up because of the pain.
I’ve always been prone to sinus infection aside from my diagnosis, so when I went to the doctor, he quickly dismissed it as one. I was prescribed a nasal spray. I only got to use it twice.
The morning following my first doctors appointment, I was supposed to be picked up by my grandmother to be taken to school. I threw up as soon as I got out of bed and told my grandmother that I couldn’t possibly go to school. She persisted, like parents do, but I put my foot down and told her that I couldnt as I threw up again. As a normally agreeable child, I think that was the moment of realization that something was very wrong.
I went to the doctors office a second time. This time I saw the head doctor. He looked behind my eyes and saw something that alerted him to get me an MRI.
Turns out, I had a brain tumor that was blocking the flow of my brain fluid causing it to push on the back of my eyes, and in turn, was what was creating my massive headaches. I don’t know how he saw it, but he saved my life.”
“When I was in the shower, and I couldn’t catch my breath with all of the steam- to the point where I just had to just lay down in the shower with the water still running since I was too weak and nausea to even turn it off, I knew something was up.
I just laid there trying to breathe and not pass out. After like 10 mins, I caught my breath. But when I got up, it started again. I ended up going straight to bed to lay down. Then I got up and the room started spinning, and I couldn’t catch my breath.
Things had slowly been getting worse, but I just thought that I was tired until that shower incident (and the fact that I couldn’t even get up anymore without losing my breath). I found out I had Leukemia and basically no hemoglobins left. I was 20 at the time.”
“My Grandma was 89. She was tired a lot as most old people are. She went to the doctor for a routine checkup, and they drew some blood. Long story short, she had hairy cell Leukemia. We discussed a treatment plan- which was going to be a simple one.
The doctor then called us back and said that this was a really rare form of the cancer, so the treatment was going to be different. It was supposed to be a month long with 4 visits for chemotherapy. One of the things my grandmother was supposed to do was drink plenty of water. She also had some advanced kidney disease because all she ever used to drink was black coffee (and never any water).
We were told that the side effects of the chemotherapy were rare, but she unfortunately experienced all of them and to the worst degree.
She was admitted to the hospital when she went in for her third visit because her BP was so low. She died two days later from what was essentially dehydration. She refused IV fluids from the hospital. When we would give her water, she would just dump it out and refuse to drink it.
Turns out, she was also extremely depressed since my grandfather passed away 8 years prior. They were married for over 50 years. I didn’t know how bad her depression was until after she had passed away. She died in the same hospital about 2 doors down from where my grandpa died. We spread their ashes together at a private ceremony.”
“I was having really bad abdominal pain on a Saturday morning in August 2013. I thought it was part of a hangover from the night before, but it just got worse. I called my doctor at 4AM onSunday.
He called me back and told me to go to the ER. They gave me morphine and a CT scan- which showed a fist-sized tumor wedged between my left kidney and my aorta. It turned out to be a malignant paraganglioma.
The diagnosis took a couple of weeks due to all of the testing and reviews that had to be done by the hospital’s tumor board. Taking it out had me out of action for more than a year, but I’m fine now.”
Posts are edited for clarity.