What is asymptomatic cancer?

While most people are diagnosed with cancer after they experience one or more signs or symptoms, there are some people who are stunned to find out they have cancer without having noticed any symptoms at all.

Cancer is a word that brings fear to many people, and you’ll often hear of people being diagnosed asymptomatic. This means that the cancer has developed in a part of the body which has no symptoms, or symptoms are not felt at the time.

Someone with cancer doesn’t have to have symptoms. If you have asymptomatic cancer, you might only find out when an X-ray or other diagnostic test reveals the problem.

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Some symptoms of cancer can be vague and can be easily mistaken for other health conditions. Also, you might only notice symptoms at the later stage of development when the cancer starts to affect other parts of the body.

Because of cancer’s ability to “hide in plain sight”, it’s important to keep up with recommended cancer screening tests, which can detect cancers at a very early stage, even before they’ve caused any obvious symptoms.

What are the signs and symptoms of cancer? What are the signs and symptoms of cancer?

The signs and symptoms of cancer are varied and can range from mild to severe. The most common symptom is a lump, which may be felt or seen on the body; however, this isn’t always the case.

Other common cancer symptoms include:

• Unexplained pain that doesn’t go away
• Changes in bowel or bladder habits
• Weight loss or gain for no known reason
• Persistent sore throat or cough
• Unexplained bleeding or blood
• Headaches or blurred vision
• Fatigue
• Dizziness and nausea
• A sore or skin growth that is slow to heal or changes in size and shape
• Breast changes

Which cancers are hardest to detect?Which cancers are hardest to detect?

There are many types of cancer that can grow in the body without causing noticeable symptoms. These are sometimes called silent cancers. The cancers that can be the most difficult to detect at an early stage are:

Lung cancer
While some people with lung cancer do experience symptoms, these can be nonspecific and could be dismissed as other conditions such as asthma or bronchitis. As a result, lung cancers are often diagnosed at an advanced stage when they have already spread beyond the lungs.

Brain cancer
Brain cancer can be difficult to detect because it can take various forms. Symptoms are often vague and nonspecific.

Cervical cancer
Cervical cancer is often asymptomatic until it reaches Stage 2 or 3, which can make early detection difficult.

Pancreatic cancer
Early-stage pancreatic cancer is unlikely to cause any signs or symptoms, which is why it is often only diagnosed after it has reached an advanced state.

Colorectal cancer
Colorectal (or bowel) cancer can be hard to detect in the early stages, which is why we have a screening program in Australia to detect the cancer early or to detect and remove pre-cancerous colonic polyps.

Ovarian cancer
Sometimes called the silent killer, ovarian cancer symptoms can be very non-specific and like other common conditions.

Thyroid cancer
Thyroid cancers cause symptoms such as a lump or pain in the throat / neck area, however many are asymptomatic.

How long can you have cancer without knowing it?How long can you have cancer without knowing it?

While some cancers grow very quickly, other cancers are very slow growing and can even go undetected for ten years or more. One example is certain types of thyroid cancer, which are very slow growing and may never spread beyond the thyroid gland.

If you receive a cancer diagnosis, we are here to help. You can find out how to become a patient at Icon Cancer Centre or request more information from your nearest centre here.


For a full list of references, click here.

Common cancer symptoms. Cancer Council. (n.d.). Retrieved November 28, 2022, from

Signs and Symptoms of Cancer | Do I Have Cancer? American Cancer Society. (2020, November 6). Retrieved November 28, 2022, from

Breast Cancer Early Detection and Diagnosis. (2018). Cancer.org; American Cancer Society. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from

Key symptoms of cancer. (2022). Nsw.gov.au. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from

Early detection and screening. (n.d.). Retrieved November 28, 2022, from
www.cancer.org.au. https://www.cancer.org.au/cancer-information/causes-and-prevention/early-detection-and-screening

The content found on the Icon Cancer Centre website is intended solely for informational purposes and should not be considered as medical advice. It is not a substitute for consulting with a qualified medical professional. Our website is designed to provide information and support to the general public. Please be mindful that we do not dispense medical advice, and for personalised medical guidance, we strongly advise you to consult with a qualified medical professional or doctor.

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