Is Itching a Sign of Cancer?

  • Only rarely does itching signal that a person has cancer.
  • Some cancer treatments themselves may cause itching or rashes.

Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Buchbinder, MD, and Jennifer Crombie, MD

Got an itch that just won’t go away? Also known as pruritus (proo-rai-tuhs), itchy skin can have a wide variety of causes, including seasonal allergies and dry skin; various skin conditions, such as eczema; and even certain detergents and lotions.

The good news is that itchy skin is typically not a sign of cancer. This symptom may occur as a result of complications of the disease, and itchy, flaky skin and rashes are common side effects of some cancer drugs. Most skin cancers don’t normally cause itching.

Anyone with a prolonged, unexplainable itch should consult either their primary care physician or a dermatologist.

Which cancers can be associated with itching?

The cancers that are most commonly associated with itching are lymphoma, polycythemia vera (PV), certain gastrointestinal cancers, and melanoma.

Lymphoma

Lymphoma is a type of blood cancer that develops in the lymphatic system, which is part of the body’s immune system. There are two main types of lymphomas: Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Itching can be common in people with Hodgkin lymphoma as well as other lymphoid malignancies, such as chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). According to Jennifer Crombie, MD, an oncologist at the Center for Hematologic Oncology at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center (DF/BWCC), itchiness can be seen in up to 20% of diagnosed cases of Hodgkin lymphoma.

In some instances, itchiness can be severe and localized throughout the body rather than in a single spot, and can occur without an associated rash. The symptoms of itchiness can also precede the diagnosis of cancer.

While lotions or antihistamines may help, patients often require treatment of their lymphoma to improve their symptoms. While it is still unclear as to why some patients experience itchiness, it is believed the cancer may trigger the release of substances, known as cytokines, in the body that cause the symptom.

People who experience scaly skin and red rashes may be exhibiting an early sign of mycosis fungoides or Sezary syndrome, which are forms of cutaneous T-cell lymphoma (CTCL). CTCL is a rare form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma that develops in abnormal T cells, white blood cells that are used to fight infections. CTCL typically develops very slowly and, unlike cases of Hodgkin lymphoma, itchiness may be contained to the affected skin.

It is important to remember that itchiness is not a criterion for lymphoma staging and does not indicate a more or less favorable diagnosis. Once a patient begins treatment, the itchiness should go away.

“While rare, itchiness can be associated with malignancies,” says Crombie. “For this reason, it’s something people should be aware of. If you’re experiencing severe or prolonged itchiness with no clear cause, you should see a doctor.”

Polycythemia vera (PV)

PV is a form of blood cancer in which the bone marrow produces an abnormal amount of red blood cells.

PV is categorized as a myeloproliferative disorder — an umbrella term used to describe a number of blood cancers in which the bone marrow makes too many abnormal red blood cells, white blood cells, or platelets.

People with this disease often report experiencing itchiness following a warm bath or hot shower. Other symptoms associated with PV include:

  • Trouble breathing when lying down
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue

Gastrointestinal cancers

Certain gastrointestinal cancers — cancers that affect the digestive system — may also lead to itchiness. However, itching that is not accompanied by other symptoms is not considered indicative of gastrointestinal cancer.

In the cases of these cancers, itchiness is caused by obstructive jaundice. Jaundice is a yellowing of the skin, and this specific type of jaundice occurs when the bile ducts is either blocked or narrowed. This blockage, which can be a result of a tumor, prevents the normal drainage of the fluid from the bloodstream into the intestines.

The types of gastrointestinal cancer that are most commonly associated with obstructive jaundice include pancreatic cancer, liver cancer, and gallbladder cancer.

Melanoma

Melanoma is a type of cancer that originates in the melanocytes, cells that make the pigment melanin. An itchy mole is considered a warning sign for melanoma and should be examined by a dermatologist. A person with melanoma won’t experience itching throughout the body; instead, it will be contained to the mole itself, and surgically removing it will relieve any itchiness.

If a biopsy confirms the mole is melanoma, the fact it was itchy can be indicative of a positive outlook. Itchiness is often a sign that the immune system has ramped up in order to attack the cancer cells, according to Elizabeth Buchbinder, MD, an oncologist at the Center for Melanoma Oncology at DF/BWCC.

Can cancer treatments cause itching?

Some cancer treatments may lead to itching or rashes, which can occur both over the entire body or in isolated areas. Chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and immunotherapy have all been known to cause itchiness.

For a patient undergoing chemotherapy, itching could be an early sign that they are allergic to the drugs. In the case of radiation therapy, itching can indicate damage to the healthy cells. For patients undergoing immunotherapy, rashes and itchiness can be signs of inflammation in the skin.

In some instances, itching may be a chronic side effect of certain treatments, including:

  • Biologic agents
  • Radiation therapy
  • A variety of targeted drugs

If you’re experiencing itchiness, make sure to tell your oncologist as they will be able prescribe something to help.

View Comments (14)

  1. Donna

    Always thought that itching ,was also some kind nervous condition too.

  2. Denise M.A. Brown

    Itching is a very common sign of Hodgkin Lymphoma. My daughter had it as one of the first symptoms and lasted until second round of chemo.

  3. John Jackson

    The article fails to mention the likelihood of the itchiness being attributed to mild eczema. You can confirm that with a qualified dermatologist. There is a prescription for that.

  4. Pauline

    This is the same cancer my daughter had and the itchiness lasted into her second treatment as well. She had also developed calloused palms and soles of her feet were very itchy. She broke a few of my floor registers by trying to scratch the bottoms of her feet.

  5. Adam C

    My father had severe itching that was related to his undiagnosed gall bladder cancer. The itching was mistakenly linked to a skin rash and had he headed the warning itch he may still be with us today.

  6. Kim Watkins

    Itching contained in one area? Or all over? Scalp itching?

  7. Judy

    My mother had Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and itchiness was her first and persistent symptom that led to her diagnosis. 15 years later when she was later diagnosed with Melanoma that had metastasized to her liver, again itching was the first and persistent symptom. It was not contained to one area and would keep her up at night.

    1. Janet L Hixon

      I have HPV positive. Every 6 months I go to Boston. 3 weeks ago my Dr. that I have seen since 2011 said only Pap today & I know you like colposcopy due to your travels to see me. I mentioned a tingling/itch near my vulva. Biopsy results high grade precancerous!!!

  8. Beth

    I am so happy your article talked about Polycythemia Vera as it is a form of cancer rarely talked about.

    1. Christine M Morgan

      I agree, Polycythemia Vera is rarely talked about.

  9. Liz Martin

    Just read an article on cancer of the vulva and persistent itch is a symptom. Very often misdiagnosed as a yeast infection.

  10. Judy Durfee

    While I was on immunotherapy (Nivolumab) I was going out of my mind with itching. I would come in waves. The itch was so deep inside of my skin that scratching did nothing to relieve it. I haven’t had a treatment in almost 2 years (Thank you God) and the itching is almost gone!

  11. Janet L Hixon

    I go to Boston hospital for 6 month HPV positive check. 3 weeks ago At my appt. my Dr. Said only pap but since you travel you’d like a colposcopy but pap is only needed. I mentioned a itch/tingling left of my vulva so 2 biopsies were done…..high grade precancerous! What if I didn’t say something!?

  12. MARY QUINN

    I found my melanoma thanks to an itch. My upper arm had a very itchy bump, The first time I scratched it it started bleeding right thru my blouse, shocking me and my coworkers. Had it not itched, I would not have even noticed the mole or asked my dr about it. I thank God for the itch and for saving me!

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