Men and cancer: How to spot the signs

Words by Gavin Newsham

Men's health disease, on prostate cancer or mental illness concept with male patient having consultation with doctor or psychiatrist working on diagnostic examination in medical clinic or hospital. (Getty Images)
'It’s really important to be aware of those cancers that can occur more frequently, in order to spot any signs and symptoms early,' says consultant urological surgeon. (Getty Images)

First, the good news. Nearly 40% of all cancers are preventable and survival rates continue to improve dramatically in the United Kingdom. In the 1970s, for instance, just one in four people survived their disease for 10 years or more but today that figure is nearly one in two.

But cancer isn’t going away.

There are around 367,000 new cases of cancer diagnosed in the UK each year – or one every two minutes. In men, meanwhile, there are around 187,000 new cancer cases each year and while cancer can develop at any age, the older we get, the more likely we are to develop it.

For men in their 30s and 40s, incidence rates for all cancers are still low but there’s a steep rise when men reach 55 and over. Your age will also determine which cancers you’re more likely to encounter. In males aged 25-49 in the UK, for instance, the most common form of cancer is testicular cancer, accounting for around 14% of all cases in that demographic but in those men aged 50-74 it’s prostate cancer that is, by some distance, the most common type, amounting to 30% of all cases.

But whatever your age and whatever your cancer concern, there’s one thing we can all do to give ourselves a fighting chance, as Mr Christian Brown, Consultant Urological Surgeon at The Prostate Centre, part of HCA Healthcare UK, explains. “It’s really important to be aware of those cancers that can occur more frequently, in order to spot any signs and symptoms early,” he says.

It’s good advice…

Five common male cancers

Testicular cancer

Male doctor and testicular cancer patient are discussing about testicular cancer test report. Testicular cancer and prostate cancer concept.
Treatments for testicular cancer have a high success rate. (Getty Images)

While testicular cancer is relatively rare, it is still the most common form of cancer in men aged between 25 and 49, affecting around 2,000 men in the UK each year. What causes it is unclear, but there is evidence to suggest that both a family history of it and/or undescended testicles may play a part in its development.

If you’re worried, look out for one or more of these symptoms, the most common of which is a painless swelling or a lump in one of the testicles. You might notice a difference in the texture or shape of the testicles or you might have a heavy or firmer than usual scrotum.

If you do find something untoward, then don’t worry unduly as the range of treatments, from surgery (generally the first port of call) to radiotherapy and chemotherapy, have an excellent success rate, as Mr Christian Brown explains. “The good news is that testicular cancer is one of the most treatable types of cancer, and survival rates are very high,” says Brown. In fact, more than 95% of men will survive five years or more after diagnosis.”

Read more: 12 things people wish they knew about cervical screenings and results

Lung cancer

asian eldely sick man has a cold and cough at home
Smoking is a big contributing factor for lung cancer. (Getty Images)

Lung cancer rates in UK males may have fallen by 11% in the last decade or so but it’s still the most common cause of cancer deaths across all ages of men in the UK with around 18,600 deaths each year. And while smoking cigarettes might have declined in popularity in recent years, it remains the primary cause of 72% of lung cancer cases in the country. In fact, if you do smoke 25 cigarettes or more a day you’re actually 25 times more likely to get lung cancer than someone who doesn’t smoke.

The likelihood of developing lung cancer rises steeply from the age of 45, peaking for men for those in the 85-89 age group but it can strike at any age. While respiratory problems will be common, you can also expect to some from persistent coughs, chest infections and coughing up blood. Less obvious, though no less important symptoms include loss of appetite, difficulty swallowing and a swollen neck.


Checking benign moles. Close up detail of the bare skin on a man back with scattered moles and freckles. Sun effect on skin. Birthmarks on skin
Use the 'ABCDE' checklist to help check for melanoma. (Getty Images)

Another common cancer in men under 50 is melanoma (sometimes called malignant or cutaneous melanoma) and is usually spotted when a mole changes in appearance or a new mole emerges. Typically, it’s the ones on a man’s back where most problems occur whereas women tend to have issues with the ones on their legs. “This might be the result of increased sun exposure combined with a failure to use adequate sun protection, with many men in denial about the risk sun exposure can have on their health,” says Brown. “It may be also because women are more likely to see a doctor about their melanoma at an earlier stage.”

Research certainly backs this up, with men aged between 15 and 39 around 55% more likely to die of melanoma than women in the same age group.

Early treatment is key and how your melanoma is treated will depend on the type of cancer you have and how far it might have spread, as well as your more general health. Surgery is the most common way to tackle it and specialists will also check to see if it has spread to your lymph nodes in which case further surgery might be required.

“The ABCDE checklist (see below) is a good way to check for melanoma,” adds Christian Brown. “But remember to see a GP as soon as possible if you notice changes in a mole, freckle or patch of skin.”

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Melanoma – The ABCDE checklist

A – Asymmetry (most melanoma are irregular in shape)

B – Border (the edges around a melanoma are likely to be uneven)

C – Colour (melanoma are usually more than one colour)

D – Diameter (melanoma are usually more than 6mm wide)

E – Evolving (check for changes in size, shape or colour of a mole)


Close-up Of A Man's Hand Touching His Sore Throat
Men should look out for swelling in the lymph nodes, found in the armpit, groin or neck. (Getty Images)

Lymphoma is cancer that begins in the lymph glands or other organs of the lymphatic system (that’s the network of vessels and glands spread throughout your body) and it affects slightly more men than it does women.

There are two main types of lymphoma – Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), with the latter being more commonplace. NHL is the result of a mutation in the DNA of a white blood cells called lymphocytes, although nobody really knows why it takes place. Complicating matters still further is the fact that there are around 60 different types of NHL, all of which behave differently and need differing types of treatments.

Men should look out for swelling in the lymph nodes, often in the armpit, groin or neck and a feeling of itchiness across your skin. High temperatures, night sweats and a sudden loss of weight could also be clues. If you still have swollen glands after six weeks, you should see your GP as soon as you can. “But there has been a lot of progress in treating NHL in recent years and increasingly more people are being cured of their disease. In fact, more than 65% of patients will survive 5 years or more after diagnosis,” says Christian Brown.

Read more: Cancer deaths predicted to rise. What to do if you think you've spotted a sign or symptom

Prostate cancer

Man with hands holding his crotch, he wants to pee
A common symptom of prostate cancer is needing to pee more often. (Getty Images)

The most common cancer in men, prostate cancer tends to affect men aged 50 and over and you’re two and a half times more likely to develop it if your brother or father have also had it. Black males are also more likely to get it than white men too.

Worryingly, it’s on the rise too with the incidence of it increasing by 41% since the 1990s and projections suggest it might yet rise by another 12% by 2035. To put it in perspective, approximately one in eight men in the United Kingdom will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during their life.

The biggest tell-tale sign of prostate is cancer is blood in your urine, although many of the most common symptoms will happen when you do go to the loo, including needing to pee more frequently, having difficult while peeing or taking longer than you normally would.

If some or all of these are happening to you it’s best to see your doctor as soon as possible.