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Incidental Cancer Diagnosis – How Common Is It Really?

By now we’ve all heard the news – King Charles has cancer. He appears to be doing well, undergoing treatment, and we pass on our best wishes to the King and his family during this difficult time. But today we wanted to talk about how they found the cancer. You see, he went in for a routine procedure – prostate problems in a man his age aren’t uncommon after all. And while we don’t know what kind of cancer the king is suffering from, it’s likely something they want to deal with quickly.

So how did they find it? Well, it’s safe to say that they ran tests to check his general health before and after this benign prostate procedure, they found something. And when they investigated, they found cancer.

How Often is Cancer Diagnosed Incidentally?

That might sound shocking, but the way that the King was diagnosed really isn’t that uncommon. Around 4% of cancer diagnoses are incidental findings, though it does depend hugely on the type of cancer that’s discovered.

Finding out a patient has cancer by accident (also known as ‘incidental diagnosis) is surprisingly common. Some people will exhibit no signs or symptoms of cancer, and so you can sometimes have cancer for weeks, months or even years without knowing about it. The length of time will vary depending on a few things, including:

  • The type of cancer

  • The location of the cancer

  • How quickly it grows and spreads

For example, some types of cancer, like carcinoid cancer, grow very, very slowly. They can be there for years or even decades before they cause any noticeable symptoms. There are also some health conditions and even medicines that can cause symptoms similar to cancer. Which might mean you and doctors overlook them, or pin them down to other things.

And then, of course, you have asymptomatic cancer. This is when you have cancer, but don’t show any symptoms of having it. Even as the cancer progresses, it might not trigger any noticeable symptoms. In these cases, doctors can find them during routine medical screenings, check ups, or investigations for unrelated health concerns. Which is exactly what happened to King Charles III.

Do Some Cancers Go Undetected More Than Others?

Some types of cancer are more difficult for doctors to find because they often present with subtle or nonspecific symptoms. So it’s easier for doctors to think the symptoms are caused by other, more likely things. Cancers most likely to go undetected include:

Pancreatic cancer: This cancer often goes undetected until it’s in the advanced stages. This is usually because it grows deep within the abdomen, and doesn’t display any early symptoms to tip people off.

Lung cancer: This type of cancer doesn’t often produce significant symptoms in the early stages. When the symptoms do rear their head, they can often link to respiratory issues like asthma, delaying the diagnosis.

Ovarian cancer: This cancer is best known for its silent, sneaky nature. Symptoms could easily be caused by other conditions, which makes diagnosis and treatment more challenging.

Thyroid cancer: Most people with this type of cancer are asymptomatic. Some will get a lump or pain in their throat, but put up with it for a long time before they seek medical help.

Kidney cancer: Early-stage kidney cancer often doesn’t cause symptoms. In fact, it’s mainly discovered during imaging studies for unrelated reasons.

Colorectal cancer: Bowel cancer causes very vague symptoms that can be hard to detect in its early stages.

Liver cancer: Early-stage liver cancer rarely shows symptoms. So liver cancer is often caught during routine medical tests.

There are also some cancers that are more likely to be asymptomatic until the advanced stages. These are:

  • Brain cancer

  • Testicular cancer

  • Breast cancer

  • Prostate cancer

  • Skin cancer

What About all the Scans and Checks?

Now you might be asking, if there are so many cancers that can go undetected, why there aren’t more tests and screenings available to detect them? It’s a difficult question to answer, but for some types of cancer, at least, we do. There are currently 7 types of cancer we have pre-emptive screenings for:

  • Breast

  • Cervical

  • Colorectal cancer

  • Head and neck cancers

  • Lung cancer

  • Prostate cancer

  • Skin cancer

These are all pre-emptive screenings and tests that can be done for those in at-risk categories. When it comes to other types of cancer, there is research being done into how to test for them, but so far nothing is effective or reliable. Actually just last year scientists found new ways to detect certain types of cancer in a matter of hours with a simple blood test. They’re not widely available yet, but it does point to better, quicker and more efficient screening for all types of cancer.

The Upsides to Incidental Cancer Diagnosis

Incidental diagnosis is a shocking and scary thing. Going to a doctor for one issue that might be quite minor and finding out you have cancer can be terrifying, especially if you’re showing no symptoms at all. You’ve not had any sort of build-up or preparation, and a lot of the treatment options you might be facing can sound frightening. But there is a silver lining. If your cancer is discovered incidentally, then it’s likely in the early stages. Especially if you’re not experiencing any symptoms. This means it’s likely easier to treat and manage. This is much better than other types of cancer that do display symptoms or that are found by routine screenings.

At Jill’s Fundraising Journey, we provide holidays for any family affected by a cancer diagnosis, including an incidental finding. To find out more, just get in touch to book your getaway.


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