Home >  Blog >  How Long Can You Have Cancer Without Knowing About It?

How Long Can You Have Cancer Without Knowing About It?

Posted by Geoff Beaty on 14 July 2021
How Long Can You Have Cancer Without Knowing About It?
Some cancers are more easily detected than others. For example, certain types of skin cancer can be diagnosed initially just by visual inspection, though a biopsy is necessary to confirm the diagnosis.

But other cancers can form and grow undetected for 10 years or more, as one study found, making diagnosis and treatment that much more difficult.

This list provides an overview of common cancers that often display little or no symptoms early on, and how they're typically detected and diagnosed:

Signs vs. symptoms of cancer
Signs and symptoms of disease can be two different things:

A sign is something that can be observed by another person, such as a change in skin color or wheezing.
A symptom is something you feel, such as fatigue or pain, that isn't obvious to others.
The nature of cancer signs and symptoms differ greatly, depending on where the cancer is located.

Bladder cancer, for instance, causes blood in the urine, while brain cancer triggers terrible headaches.

When do signs and symptoms first appear?
Typically, cancer signs and symptoms first appear when the cancerous tumor or mass has grown large enough that it begins to push against nearby organs and tissue, blood vessels, and nerves. This can lead to pain, a change in how the nearby organs function, or both. A brain tumour pressing against the optic nerve will affect vision, for example.

Some cancers are fast moving, such as liver and pancreatic cancers. Prostate cancer, however, is usually slow moving. This is why many older men with prostate cancer forego treatment; they're more likely to die with prostate cancer than because of it.

When to see a doctor
Screenings for certain cancers should be part of your normal preventive healthcare. These include cancers of the:
  • prostate
  • breast
  • colon and rectum
  • cervix
  • skin

Your age, sex, family history, and your own medical history will dictate when routine screenings should begin and how often they should be done.

Signs that warrant an immediate trip to a doctor
Some common cancer signs that should result in a visit to the emergency room or to a doctor as soon as possible include:

  • coughing up mucus tinged with blood
  • blood in stools or urine
  • lump in the breast, testicles, under the arm, or anywhere that it didn't exist before
  • unexplained but noticeable weight loss
  • severe unexplained pain in the head, neck, chest, abdomen, or pelvis
These and other signs and symptoms will be evaluated. Screenings, such as blood and urine tests and imaging tests, will be used if your doctor thinks it's appropriate.

These tests are done both to help make a diagnosis as well as rule out various causes of your signs and symptoms.

When seeing a doctor, be prepared to share the following information:

Your personal medical history, including all symptoms you have experienced, as well as when they began
Family history of cancer or other chronic conditions
A list of all medications and supplements you take
Why it's important to catch cancer early
For some cancers that are screened for on a regular basis, survival rates tend to be high. That's because they're often diagnosed early on, before symptoms develop.

The 5-year survival rate for people with localized breast or prostate cancer is nearly 100 percent. (Localized means it hasn't spread outside the original tissue or organ.) And when diagnosed early, melanoma has about a 99 percent 5-year survival rate.

But catching some cancers early is difficult. There are no regular screening guidelines for some cancers, and symptoms may not show up until the cancer is in its advanced stages.

To help protect yourself from these cancers:

Be sure to keep up with your regular blood work and annual physicals.
Report any new symptoms to your doctor, even if they seem minor.
Talk with your doctor about testing if you have a family history of a particular type of cancer.

Author:Geoff Beaty
Tags:NewsPrevention & RecoveryCancer


  • The Institute for Functional Medicine
  • Society for Integrative Oncology
  • American Society of Clinical Oncology
  • Australian Traditional-Medicine Society
  • Naturopaths and Herbalists Association of Australia