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2024-03-25T00:00:00.000+00:00

How long can you have cancer without knowing?

How long can you have cancer without knowing?

9 minute read

Cancer can go unnoticed for many years, especially if it’s growing slowly or causing no symptoms. Some people are shocked to learn they have cancer after a routine check-up or seeing a doctor for something they thought was unrelated.

This is partly because cancer doesn’t always show symptoms, especially in the early stages. This is called asymptomatic cancer, which means there are no noticeable signs.

All cancers start very small – as just single cells. It’s often only when cancer grows bigger or spreads that it causes symptoms, which is when most people are diagnosed.

Whether or not cancer causes symptoms depends on:

  • The size
  • Where the cancer is
  • How fast it's growing

Some cancers grow very slowly, so people might be unaffected for many years. Other cancers have vague symptoms that are easy to miss, which can also mean they go undetected until a later stage. 

Cancer can go unnoticed for many years, especially if it’s growing slowly or causing no symptoms. Some people are shocked to learn they have cancer after a routine check-up or seeing a doctor for something they thought was unrelated.

This is partly because cancer doesn’t always show symptoms, especially in the early stages. This is called asymptomatic cancer, which means there are no noticeable signs.

All cancers start very small – as just single cells. It’s often only when cancer grows bigger or spreads that it causes symptoms, which is when most people are diagnosed.

Whether or not cancer causes symptoms depends on:

  • The size
  • Where the cancer is
  • How fast it's growing

Some cancers grow very slowly, so people might be unaffected for many years. Other cancers have vague symptoms that are easy to miss, which can also mean they go undetected until a later stage. 

Warning signs of cancer

On a positive note, there are things you can do to help spot cancer early. And for many cancers, spotting signs earlier makes it easier to treat and gives a better chance of successful treatment.

Make sure you:

  • Know the common signs of cancer
  • See a doctor if you have symptoms
  • Go to any cancer screenings you’re offered

The signs and symptoms depend on the type of cancer, but here are some common symptoms to watch out for.

1. Coughing, chest pain, or being out of breath

Chest symptoms can be a sign of lung cancer, including a cough lasting longer than three weeks.

2. Changes in toilet habits (bowels or urination)

Changes in how often or how urgently you need to urinate or open your bowels, and how your urine or stool looks can be a sign of prostate or gastrointestinal cancers.

3. Bloating

Bloating feels like your stomach is too full or stretched. It can even look bigger. It can be a sign of ovarian cancer

4. Bleeding or traces of blood

This could be bleeding from the vagina, bottom, or when you cough. It can also be blood in your urine, vomit, or stools, which could be red, pink, brown or black. 

5. Lumps, bumps, moles or skin changes

Sometimes cancer causes lumps or bumps that you can see or feel, or changes to the skin, like moles, redness, or darkening if you have black or brown skin. 

6. Unexplained weight changes

Unexplained weight changes mean you’ve lost or gained weight without an obvious cause, such as changes in your eating habits or physical activity, or stress. 

7. Pain that doesn't go away or keeps coming back

Cancer can cause pain in the body where it’s growing, including stomach pain, back pain, chest pain, breast pain or headaches.

8. Itchy or yellow skin

Pancreatic cancer can make your skin itch, and your eyes or skin turn yellow

9. Feeling constantly tired or unwell

If you have tiredness that doesn’t go away with rest, or often feel unwell without a reason, it can be a sign of cancer.

Symptoms don’t always mean you have cancer, as most of these signs can be caused by other conditions too. A doctor will talk to you about your symptoms and general health and offer further tests if cancer is a concern.

Are you worried about cancer?

If you’re worried about cancer or concerned about any possible cancer symptoms, visit our diagnostic clinics page or call us on the number below and book an appointment today. 

0808 304 2332
0808 304 2332

Which cancers are typically diagnosed late?

According to NHS data from 2022, these cancers are more likely to be diagnosed late (stage 3 and 4):

Early diagnosis is improving for many cancers, such as breast cancer. This is thanks to increased awareness of symptoms, improvements in tests and scans to check for cancer, and national screening programs. 

How screenings can help

A cancer screening is when you have a test or scan for cancer, without having any symptoms. A screening is different to the tests you have when you have symptoms. 

Screening can help to spot cancer at an earlier stage, which can mean more treatment options and a better chance of treating or curing cancer. 

The NHS offers national screening for cervical, breast and bowel cancer. You may also be invited for other screenings if you have a family history of certain cancers, like prostate cancer.

At GenesisCare, we offer private cancer screening to help spot cancer early: 

We also offer fast access to diagnostics and treatments for all adult cancers, including tests and scans if you have symptoms of cancer. 

When to see a doctor

There are over 200 types of cancer, and the symptoms can vary for each. It’s important to see a doctor as soon as possible if you notice changes in your health. 

Book an appointment with your doctor if… 

  • You notice a new symptom or health concern
  • You spoke to them about a symptom before, but it hasn’t gone away 
  • You’re worried about cancer 

FAQs