6 Silent cancers that you need to keep an eye on

16 May, 2024

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Silent cancers are cancers that do not have any noticeable early symptoms, and in such cases, patients may have no symptoms of cancer until the advanced stages. The doctor diagnoses silent cancers, usually in their advanced stages. However, in some cases, these cancers are detected during the diagnosis of other conditions. Therefore, high–risk individuals must regularly screen themselves to determine the presence of these cancers at an early stage.

Some silent cancers include breast cancer, ovarian cancer, colorectal cancer, pancreatic cancer, and lung cancer.

Why Do Silent Cancers Have No Initial Symptoms?

Some may have cancer without symptoms. It is because most of these cancers affect the internal organs. Therefore, the changes in these organs cannot be noticed from the outside. However, it is not that these cancers do not have warning signs at all. Patients do experience silent signs of cancer. However, these silent cancer symptoms are similar to those of other less severe health conditions. It is thus vital to notice the initial symptoms and consult with the doctor.

Top 6 Silent Cancers - Their Signs and Symptoms

Several types of cancer do not show symptoms until they progress into advanced stages. Therefore, it is necessary for individuals, especially those with higher risk, to monitor their symptoms. They must consult their doctor if there is any concern about the signs. Some of the cancers that people should keep an eye on are:

Ovarian Cancer

An important silent cancer, ovarian cancer is often not diagnosed until it is in the advanced stages. The early signs of ovarian cancer are misinterpreted as symptoms of other less severe conditions, such as gastrointestinal problems or health alterations due to aging.

How Does it Develop?

Ovarian cancer develops when the cells present in the ovarian lining undergo mutations and start dividing abnormally to form a mass. In the early stages, the mass or tumor is localized and confined to the ovaries only. However, as the disease advances, it spreads to nearby lymph nodes and different organs in the body.

Signs and Symptoms

The following are the commonly observed silent signs of ovarian cancer:

  • Abdominal bloating or swelling
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Back pain
  • Quickly feeling full when eating
  • Discomfort in the pelvic area
  • Bowel changes, such as diarrhea and constipation
  • Vaginal Discharge
  • Frequent urination
  • Menstrual changes

What Can You Do?

You may consider opting for appropriate ovarian cancer prevention measures that bring down your ovarian cancer risk. Healthy food habits, regular exercise, optimum weight management, and regular health checkups are a few measures that can help you reduce your ovarian cancer risk.

If you are experiencing ovarian cancer symptoms, do not ignore them. These symptoms are often persistent and do not go away even after taking medication. Consult your doctor and explain your symptoms to them in detail. They may ask you to undergo specific tests. If the observations from these tests are alarming, you may be asked to consult a specialist for a conclusive diagnosis and appropriate medical interventions.

Who Should Pay Extra Attention?

Ovarian cancer is associated with various risk factors, and individuals with these risk factors fall under the “high-risk” category. The different risk factors identified for ovarian cancer include obesity, certain inherited genetic mutations, history of endometriosis, family history of ovarian cancer, early menstruation, late menopause, absence of pregnancy, and hormone replacement therapy.

Colorectal Cancer

Colon cancer is another silent cancer that may not exhibit any symptoms in its early stages. Colon cancer is one of the top ten cancers in India, and it is diagnosed more in men than in women. The risk of developing colon cancer increases with age.

How Does it Develop?

It is estimated that about 95% of colon cancer arises from adenomatous polyps, which refer to the abnormal non-cancerous growths seen in the colon. However, only 5% of polyps become cancerous. Non-cancerous polyps take about 5-15 years to become cancerous, depending on the individual patient's circumstances. Some of the causes of colon polyp formation include obesity, history of inflammatory conditions, family history of polyps, tobacco, and alcohol consumption, and increasing age.

Signs and Symptoms

The colon cancer symptoms experienced may vary from one patient to another. The following are the commonly observed symptoms of colon cancer:

  • Changes in bowel habits
  • Blood in the stool
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Abdominal pain
  • Gas and bloating
  • Nausea and vomiting

What Can You Do?

To reduce your colon cancer risk, you should consider healthy dietary habits, an active lifestyle, healthy weight management, being aware of your family history, refraining from tobacco and alcohol consumption, and regular health checkups.

Colon cancer symptoms are often persistent and do not go away with medication. If you have been experiencing these symptoms for more than two weeks, you must consult a GI specialist for a proper evaluation. Initially, they may perform a physical examination and assess your medical history. They may also recommend a few tests to understand the cause of your symptoms and arrive at a definitive diagnosis.

Who Should Pay Extra Attention?

The risk of developing colon cancer increases with age, and it is often diagnosed after the age of 50. Other risk factors for colon cancer include a sedentary lifestyle, obesity, a personal or family history of polyps, certain genetic conditions that are associated with polyp formation, unhealthy diet habits, tobacco and alcohol consumption, type 2 diabetes, and radiation exposure. Those with these risk factors should pay extra attention and consider lifestyle modifications and regular health checkups to reduce their colon cancer risk.

Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer is also touted as a “silent cancer,” as its symptoms usually become apparent in advanced stages. Fortunately, it is a slow-growing cancer, and the women will have enough time to diagnose and manage the condition in most cases. Since its symptoms resemble those of other less serious gynecological conditions, one must pay extra attention and not ignore them, especially if they last for more than two weeks. Early detection and timely treatment play a pivotal role in the effective management of cervical cancer.

How Does it Develop?

Cervical cancer occurs when cells present in the cervix start dividing uncontrollably and form a tumor. Chronic HPV infection is the biggest risk factor for cervical cancer. When left untreated, the HPV virus can cause DNA damage, which in turn can lead to abnormal cell division and tumor formation. Chronic inflammation is also considered a risk factor for cervical cancer, like many other cancers, as it promotes an environment that makes cervical cells more vulnerable to the damaging effects of HPV. Opting for healthy lifestyle changes and HPV vaccination could be effective measures against cervical cancer development.

Signs and Symptoms

Cervical cancer causes various symptoms, which are often persistent. The following are the commonly observed cervical cancer symptoms:

  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding
  • Bleeding between periods
  • Bleeding after sexual intercourse
  • Bleeding after menopause
  • Unusual vaginal discharge
  • Pelvic pain
  • Pain during sexual intercourse
  • Painful urination
  • Changes in menstrual cycle
  • Heavier or longer periods than usual
  • Unusual menstrual bleeding
  • Weight loss and fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Constant fatigue or lack of energy

What Can You Do?

It is possible to reduce cervical cancer risk with appropriate preventive measures. Preventing chronic HPV infection, consuming a balanced diet, exercising regularly, keeping your immune system healthy, being aware of your family history, avoiding multiple sex partners and adopting healthy sexual practices, and refraining from tobacco and alcohol consumption are a few important measures you can take to reduce your cervical cancer risk.

When you start experiencing cervical cancer symptoms, you must not ignore them. While these symptoms could indicate other gynecological conditions, you must see a gynecologist for a proper evaluation. You may be asked to undergo a few tests for a definitive diagnosis.

Who Should Pay Extra Attention?

The most common risk factors for cervical cancer include chronic HPV infection, an unhealthy diet, smoking, a compromised immune system, and a family history of cervical cancer. Individuals with these risk factors should pay extra attention to their health and opt for regular screenings and health checkups.

Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer diagnosed in India. Despite being the most diagnosed cancer, it is also touted as a silent cancer, as in some cases, breast cancer can go undiagnosed even after one consults a doctor. Self-breast examination and regular screening play a critical role in the early detection and timely management of breast cancer.

How Does it Develop?

When the cells present in the breast tissue start dividing abnormally and form a mass or lump, it may be referred to as breast cancer. It is important to note that not all lumps found in breasts are cancerous. Various lifestyle and non-lifestyle factors cause the breast cells to undergo mutations and multiply abnormally. It is important to learn about the different factors that contribute to the increased risk of breast cancer development and adopt measures to mitigate the risk.

Signs and Symptoms

The monthly self-breast examination is intended to help a woman look for the signs of breast cancer. Women must look for the following signs and symptoms during their self-breast examination:

  • A lump in the breast or underarm (armpit)
  • Change in size, shape, or appearance of the breast
  • Changes in breast cancer skin
  • A newly inverted nipple
  • Redness or pitting of breast skin
  • Irritation or dimpling of breast skin
  • Unusual nipple discharge
  • Pain in any area of the breast
  • Fatigue and exhaustion
  • Unintentional weight loss

What Can You Do?

A few measures can help you reduce your breast cancer risk, and they include healthy eating habits, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, breastfeeding if possible, and being aware of your family history and inherited genetic conditions. Along with these measures, you must also consider regular screening that helps you detect the presence of abnormal masses.

If you are experiencing the symptoms of breast cancer, immediately consult your doctor or a specialist who will examine you and recommend certain tests that help them arrive at a conclusive diagnosis and accordingly plan appropriate treatment interventions.

Who Should Pay Extra Attention?

Those women who have a family history of breast cancer, a personal history of certain cancers like ovarian cancer, mutations in the genes of BRCA1 and BRCA2, dense breast tissue, or have been on long-term hormone replacement therapy have a relatively higher risk of developing breast cancer. These women must pay extra attention to their health and opt for regular screening for early detection.

Pancreatic Cancer

Another silent cancer, pancreatic cancer, also comes with fewer warning signs. It is one of the rarer forms of GI cancer. One of the biggest challenges with pancreatic cancer diagnosis is that its symptoms are often vague and can be easily associated with other less serious GI conditions. This often leads to misdiagnosis and delayed diagnosis. You need to be aware of the different symptoms that are associated with pancreatic cancer and promptly see a specialist for a definitive diagnosis.

How Does it Develop?

Pancreatic cancer occurs when the cells in the pancreas start abnormally due to DNA damage. Upon dividing uncontrollably, these cells form a mass, which is referred to as a tumor or cancer. Various factors, such as exposure to harmful carcinogens, chronic inflammation, hormonal imbalance, etc., can cause DNA damage, which is again associated with multiple lifestyle-based and non-lifestyle-based aspects.

Signs and Symptoms

The commonly observed symptoms of pancreatic cancer include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Jaundice
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Diarrhea
  • Blood clotting
  • Back pain
  • New-onset diabetes

What Can You Do?

Certain preventive measures can help you reduce your pancreatic cancer risk. Refraining from tobacco and alcohol consumption, managing chronic health conditions, consuming a balanced diet, exercising regularly, being aware of your family history, and opting for regular health checkups are a few things that you can do to reduce your pancreatic cancer risk.

That said, you must also be aware of the different symptoms of this condition. When you start experiencing symptoms that indicate pancreatic cancer, you must see a doctor or specialist for a detailed evaluation. If you are suspected of having pancreatic cancer, the specialist will recommend additional tests for a definitive diagnosis.

Who Should Pay Extra Attention?

Those with chronic pancreatitis, certain inherited genetic conditions, obesity, diabetes, smoking and drinking habits, and a family history of pancreatic cancer should pay extra attention to their health, as they have a higher risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is also considered a silent cancer, as many don’t experience its symptoms until it reaches the advanced stages. The five-year survival rate for lung cancer stands at 19%. However, if the doctor diagnoses the condition before its progression, the five-year survival rate increases to 56%. Smoking is the biggest risk factor for lung cancer.

How Does it Develop?

When cells in the lungs grow and multiply abnormally and form a tumor, it is referred to as lung cancer. In most cases, lung cancers are carcinomas, i.e., they arise from the cells that line the airways of the lungs. Exposure to harmful carcinogens, which could be due to smoking, prolonged exposure to harmful chemicals, or having a family history of lung cancer, increases the risk of lung cancer development.

Signs and Symptoms

The below-listed symptoms may indicate the presence of lung cancer. However, various other lung-related or respiratory diseases also cause similar symptoms. That said, it is important to not ignore these symptoms and promptly see a doctor.

  • A new cough that doesn't go away
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Coughing up blood
  • Bone pain
  • headache
  • Hoarseness
  • Losing weight without trying

What Can You Do?

Appropriate preventive measures can help you reduce your lung cancer risk. The most important measures for lung cancer prevention include refraining from active and passive (secondhand) smoking, avoiding exposure to harmful chemicals, testing your home for radon levels, practicing healthy eating habits, exercising regularly, and being aware of the family history of lung cancer and other inherited genetic conditions that may lead to lung cancer.

If you begin experiencing lung cancer symptoms, do not ignore them. Immediately consult a doctor and undergo the necessary tests to determine the cause of your symptoms. There are numerous treatment options available for lung cancer management today, and the chances of successful treatment are high when lung cancer is diagnosed and treated early.

Who Should Pay Extra Attention?

Those with a history of smoking, exposure to secondhand smoke and hazardous chemicals, chronic pulmonary diseases, and poor lifestyle habits should pay extra attention to their health, as they have a higher risk of developing lung cancer.

How Long Can You Have Cancer Without Knowing It?

It is possible to have cancer without knowing it, as some cancers don’t exhibit any symptoms in the early stages, and even if they do, they are not specific. The length of time one can have cancer without knowing it may vary depending on the cancer type, its growth rate, and its location. For instance, certain types of breast, colorectal, and lung cancers can grow slowly and remain asymptomatic for extended periods. This variability underscores the importance of regular screenings, being mindful of different cancer-related symptoms, and paying attention to even subtle changes in the body to catch cancer early, when it is most treatable.

Regular Screening of Silent Cancers in High-Risk Individuals

It has been observed that if all the people at risk of developing lung cancer consider screening, several lives can be saved. There are several goals for screening cancer. These include reducing mortality, increasing survival, and preventing cancer development in high-risk individuals.

Some cancers do not have any standard screening protocols. However, effective screening is available for breast cancer, cervical cancer, colorectal cancer, and lung cancer. The screening methods for breast cancer include mammography, clinical breast examination, breast self-examination, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

The doctor uses a Pap test and an HPV test to screen for cervical cancer. The doctor screens for colorectal cancer through several methods, namely colonoscopy, fecal occult blood tests, sigmoidoscopy, stool DNA tests, and double-contrast barium enema. The doctor implements a CT scan to screen for lung cancer.

Further, it is also essential that people identify their risk factors, which may be specific to cancer. If they are at high risk of developing a specific cancer, they must frequently undergo screening.


Silent cancers include breast cancer, cervical cancer, colorectal cancer, ovarian cancer, and lung cancer. Screening is an essential tool for preventing and early diagnosis of such cancers. It helps in reducing the mortality rate and enhancing the survival rate. Patients with a high risk of these cancers must not ignore the warning signs.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. Can a blood test detect cancer in the body?

Yes, certain blood tests can detect cancer in the body by identifying specific markers, cells, or substances produced by cancer cells. However, these tests are often not sufficient on their own to diagnose cancer. Further investigation through more specific diagnostic tools like biopsies or imaging tests is crucial for a conclusive diagnosis. Blood tests play a crucial role in cancer detection, as some cancers do not show signs until they are in advanced stages.

  1. Can stress cause cancer?

While stress itself is not a direct cause of cancer, it may affect the body in ways that might increase the risk of certain cancer types. Higher stress levels can lead to unhealthy coping behaviors such as smoking, overeating, or heavy alcohol use, which are risk factors for cancer. Moreover, stress may also weaken the immune system, potentially affecting the body's ability to fight off cancer cells. All these aspects may make stress an indirect cause of cancer.

The relationship between stress and cancer is complex and multifaceted, requiring more research.

  1. Does cancer make you tired?

Yes, cancer can cause tiredness. The severity of tiredness may vary from one patient to another. It may be caused by the disease itself or the treatment administered to manage it. It is therefore important for cancer patients to consume foods that improve their strength and rest adequately.

  1. Is cancer a silent killer?

Yes, a few cancers are considered “silent killers” by many, as they may not exhibit any symptoms until they reach advanced stages. This makes them harder to treat and affects their prognosis too. Regular screenings and health checkups become crucial in such cases, as they may help in early detection and timely treatment.

  1. Can you have stage 4 cancer with no symptoms?

particularly true for cancers known as silent types, where symptoms are either non-existent or vague and easily mistaken for less serious conditions.

  1. What does undetected cancer feel like?

Undetected cancer may not feel like anything, especially in its early stages. It may have symptoms that are vague and can be easily attributed to other, less serious conditions. This lack of specific symptoms makes early detection challenging but critical for improving treatment outcomes.

  1. What's the hardest cancer to detect?

Pancreatic cancer is often considered one of the hardest cancers to detect early. It is also known as a silent disease or undetectable cancer because symptoms rarely appear until the cancer is advanced. The pancreas' location deep in the abdomen further complicates early detection, as tumors cannot be easily felt or seen during routine physical exams.

  1. Which cancer is most painful?

The experience of pain varies widely among cancer patients, but bone cancer and cancers that press on nerves tend to be particularly painful. The intensity of pain depends on the cancer type, stage, and individual pain tolerance.

  1. Does cancer hurt more at night?

For some patients, cancer pain can worsen at night. This increase in pain can be due to decreased distraction from daytime activities, the body's natural circadian rhythms affecting pain perception, or lying down increasing pressure on certain parts of the body. Therefore, pain management is a crucial aspect of cancer care.

  1. What happens if cancer goes unnoticed?

If cancer goes unnoticed until it is at an advanced stage, treatment becomes more challenging, and the chances of a successful outcome decrease. In advanced stages, the disease also demands a more aggressive treatment regimen, affecting the patient’s quality of life significantly.

This highlights the importance of being aware of cancer symptoms and having regular health checkups.

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