Question: How long can cancers grow before detection?

Keywords: ,

  1. Dear Sarahb; Early detection of cancer is very important for its treatment and cure. That is why regular medical check-ups are important.

    I double checked with my brother who is an oncologist. He said that for a cancer to be found as a lump starting from a normal cell, about 1 cm of size to be detected, which involves about a billion cells. It could take very long time in some cases, over 10 years, in other cases 2-3 years maybe depending upon the kinds and locations of the cancer.


  2. Hi Sarahb, it depends on the type of cancer you are talking about. Some will be detected quite quickly simply because of their location or because of the impact they have on the body (eg a lump may be detected early in the breast, or a tumour on the thyroid gland will cause thyroid dysfuction and can possibly be felt as well), but others may be very slow growing and my not have detectable problems for years (for example some types of brain tumors).

    People might not know they have a cancer like leukaemia until they go to the doctor for something else and have a routine blood test and its found then as well – there are some types of leukaemia called chronic that people may not get symptoms for a long time and will only find out they have it when a blood test is done for another reason


  3. Great question Sarah.

    It really depends on the type of cancer, where it is, and lots of other factors. It can be weeks, months, even years before cancer is picked up, and sometimes it is just a lucky chance! Some types of cancer are easy to find, either because they are close to the surface (like skin cancer), or can be felt under the skin (like a lump in the breast).

    Sometimes we find them without looking for them, like a lady I know who went in to have an X-Ray when she broke her nose and they found a small bone cancer in her jaw, or when people have scans for chest infections and find lung cancers.

    Lots of people discover they have cancer because it causes them to have symptoms so they go to the doctor. These depend on the type of cancer, but some of them are lots of unexpected weight loss (from cachexia), feeling very tired a lot, having lots of very bad headaches, or coughing up blood.

    And sadly, some times we don’t find the tumour at all, or until it is too late. These cancers, like ovarian cancer, or some types of brain tumour, are called ‘silent killers’, because they don’t cause many obvious symptoms, or the symptoms can be explained as being from something else, and so don’t get checked properly.

    Luckily, we are getting better at picking up cancers earlier, which means we can treat them much better.


  4. Very good question! It depends on the type of cancer and the location of the cancer.

    Agressive cancers grow really fast and you might notice them within months of when they start growing. Other cancers may take many many years before you notice anything! For example, bowel cancer. It’s the second most common cancer in Australia, with more than 14,000 people a year being diagnosed with bowel cancer (I lost my mother in law to bowel cancer last October). It starts as a small poly in your guts, you won’t notice it at all. Then, the polyps can become cancerous! That’s when they start growing bigger. It may still take many years, but eventually you might see some blood coming out when you go to the toilet, or the cancer has grown so big it has grown through the wall of the gut and started to invade other organs.

    And as I said, location plays a big role. Women are told to regularly check their breasts for lumps, which may indicate breast cancer. So checking yourself for breast cancer or skin cancer might be relatively easy, but you can’t just feel a cancer in your liver or guts, until you get symptoms!