Reading or hearing about cancer can be scary. Having a loved one receive a cancer diagnosis can be even more frightening, and it’s natural that you will have many questions about whether you could also be at risk of developing cancer, could you have cancer without knowing about it, or could there be a cancerous tumor present already that you don’t know about. It is natural to have such questions go through your mind since many types of cancers only get diagnosed after the symptoms start to develop, though the cancer cells might be present in the body from long before. So how long can you have cancer without finding out about it? Let us take a look.
Can Cancers Develop Undetected?
Yes, it is very much possible that certain types of cancers to be diagnosed only after the physical symptoms become apparent.(1,2) By this stage, it is already likely that the disease has spread to quite an extent, or a tumor or several tumors have become large enough to be felt during a physical examination or seen in imaging tests.(3) At the same time, there are many cancers that can be diagnosed at an early stage, much before you start to experience the actual symptoms.(4) It is essential to keep in mind that you have the best likelihood of survival if your cancer is diagnosed and treatment is begun in the early stages.(5)
Some forms of cancer can be detected more easily than others. For example, several kinds of skin cancer can be diagnosed in the early stages simply by visual inspection, and later confirming the diagnosis with a biopsy.(6)
At the same time, there are several other cancers that can continue to develop and grow undetected for several years. This makes it extremely challenging to make a diagnosis and begin treatment as the cancer already reaches a pretty advanced stage by then.(7)
Some of the common types of cancers that usually cause little to no symptoms in the earlier stages and their diagnosis procedure are explained here:
- Breast Cancer: Breast cancer is one of the most commonly occurring types of cancer that can go undiagnosed and undetected until it reaches an advanced stage. Self-checks is the easiest way of detecting any lumps or other changes with the breast. These signs can be indicative of early-stage breast cancer. Getting regular mammograms, especially after the age of 40 years, also proves to be critical in detecting even a smaller-sized tumor, at a stage when there are no other symptoms present.(8)
- Testicular Cancer: This type of cancer can originate in either one or both the testes. It is possible for a man to continue without experiencing any symptoms for a long time. Just like breast cancer, undertaking regular testicular self-checks can help find a lump within the scrotum. However, sometimes even self-checks fail to find any indication of a lump or other signs of testicular cancer.(9)
- Prostate Cancer: In the early stages of prostate cancer, there are usually no visible symptoms. The easiest way of detecting prostate cancer is to undertake a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test, which your general physician is likely to prescribe as part of your annual check-up. This test helps detect the markers in the blood that are associated with this type of cancer.(10)
- Cervical Cancer: In cases of cervical cancer, also the symptoms don’t become evident until the later stages. Women should get regular Pap smears done to help find any precancerous cells. This will help you start treatment that can stop these cells from becoming cancerous in the future.(11)
- Ovarian Cancer: Symptoms of ovarian cancer are usually not apparent in the beginning, but when they start to arise, they are generally sudden and persistent. Unlike cervical cancer, though, getting Pap smear tests do not help in the detection of ovarian cancer. Tests that can diagnose ovarian cancer include a cancer antigen test, complete blood count, and other germ cell tumor diagnostic tests.(12)
Cancers such as lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, skin cancer, colon, and kidney cancer are some other types of cancers that do not tend to have early-stage symptoms. Such types of cancer are also known as asymptomatic cancer. In fact, many cancers are asymptomatic during the early stages. This is why it is so necessary to keep getting regular cancer screenings done, especially if you have a family history of cancer, or are at a higher risk.
On the other hand, cancers that have evident and visible symptoms in the early stages are known as symptomatic cancers. These need to be promptly diagnosed and immediately treated.
Remember that the sooner you get a cancer diagnosis and begin treatment, the better chance you have of successfully beating your cancer.
How Long Can You Have Cancer Without Finding Out About It?
Generally, the first signs and symptoms of cancer start to appear when the cancerous tumor becomes large enough to begin to push against the nearby tissues and organs, nerves, and blood vessels. This, in turn, causes pain and leads to a change in the manner in which the nearby organs function. For example, if there is a brain tumor that grows big enough and starts to press against the optic nerve, it will soon start to affect your vision.(13)
On the other hand, there are certain types of cancers that are extremely fast-growing. These include pancreatic and liver cancers. Prostate cancer, for example, is a rather slow-growing cancer. This is why many older men who have prostate cancer tend to forego treatment. This can prove to be life-threatening for them in many cases.
So there is really no such defined time period during which you can have cancer and not know about it. It varies from person to person and also depends on which type of cancer you have.
In order to avoid the worst-case scenarios of certain cancers going undetected, it is always better to undergo screenings for these types of cancers during your routine preventive health check-up. You need to especially be careful of cancers of the breast, prostate, skin, cervix, colon, and rectum.
Furthermore, your family history, age, gender, and your own medical history will also have an effect on what types of routine cancer screenings you should be undergoing and how often they need to be performed.
If you are already aware that you are at a high risk of certain cancers, then you should let your doctor know and undergo these routine screenings at least once every year.
- Siegel, R.L., Miller, K.D. and Jemal, A., 2018. Cancer statistics, 2018. CA: a cancer journal for clinicians, 68(1), pp.7-30.
- Thorsson, V., Gibbs, D.L., Brown, S.D., Wolf, D., Bortone, D.S., Yang, T.H.O., Porta-Pardo, E., Gao, G.F., Plaisier, C.L., Eddy, J.A. and Ziv, E., 2018. The immune landscape of cancer. Immunity, 48(4), pp.812-830.
- Williams, M.J., Werner, B., Barnes, C.P., Graham, T.A. and Sottoriva, A., 2016. Identification of neutral tumor evolution across cancer types. Nature genetics, 48(3), pp.238-244.
- Nesbitt, J.C., Putnam Jr, J.B., Walsh, G.L., Roth, J.A. and Mountain, C.F., 1995. Survival in early-stage non-small cell lung cancer. The Annals of thoracic surgery, 60(2), pp.466-472.
- Coleman, M.P., Quaresma, M., Berrino, F., Lutz, J.M., De Angelis, R., Capocaccia, R., Baili, P., Rachet, B., Gatta, G., Hakulinen, T. and Micheli, A., 2008. Cancer survival in five continents: a worldwide population-based study (CONCORD). The lancet oncology, 9(8), pp.730-756.
- Rajadhyaksha, M.I.L.I.N.D., 1999. Confocal reflectance microscopy: diagnosis of skin cancer without biopsy. Frontiers of Engineering, pp.24-33.
- Hori, S.S. and Gambhir, S.S., 2011. Mathematical model identifies blood biomarker–based early cancer detection strategies and limitations. Science translational medicine, 3(109), pp.109ra116-109ra116.
- Samuels, J.R., Haffty, B.G., Lee, C.H. and Fischer, D.B., 1992. Breast conservation therapy in patients with mammographically undetected breast cancer. Radiology, 185(2), pp.425-427.
- Krabbe, S., Berthelsen, J., Volsted, P., Eldrup, J., Skakkebæk, N., Eyben, F., Mauritzen, K. and Nielsen, A., 1979. High incidence of undetected neoplasia in maldescended testes. The Lancet, 313(8124), pp.999-1000.
- Barry, M.J., 2001. Prostate-specific–antigen testing for early diagnosis of prostate cancer. New England Journal of Medicine, 344(18), pp.1373-1377.
- Frame, P.S. and Frame, J.S., 1998. Determinants of cancer screening frequency: the example of screening for cervical cancer. The Journal of the American Board of Family Practice, 11(2), pp.87-95.
- Skates, S.J., 2012. Ovarian cancer screening: development of the risk of ovarian cancer algorithm (ROCA) and ROCA screening trials. International Journal of Gynecologic Cancer, 22(S1).
- Rajajee, V., Vanaman, M., Fletcher, J.J. and Jacobs, T.L., 2011. Optic nerve ultrasound for the detection of raised intracranial pressure. Neurocritical care, 15(3), pp.506-515.
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