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Cancer symptoms, detection and prevention

Do I have cancer? - Cancers you can detect with home test kits

About this article​

In this text we will give the answers to questions like what cancer is, cancer risk factors, what the odds are to get cancer, how it forms, spread and how you can test if you have cancer from home.

We will especially focus on cancer testing and benefits of catching cancer in early stages. This text is meant to be an outlook on how to combat one of the most serious diseases known to man with effective and cheap testing you can do from home.

What is cancer?

Cancer is a name given to a wide collection of different diseases. One common fact is that they are caused by our own cells. Our normally cells, grow, mature and eventually die in a controlled manner*(1). During cancer this process is disturbed, and cells start to divide and grow uncontrolled into knots – tumours. Since this is a dangerous process where part or the whole body is taken over by these growing tumours, this is a disease termed as cancer.

How does cancer start?​

Cell growth and development into more advanced forms (maturation) of cells are a normal events in organ forming before birth (embryogenesis), during growth, tissue repair and remodelling after injury (2). However, when control of these processes is disturbed or changed, it can be a doorway to the disorder of our cells natural life cycle and thereby possibly cancer. It is generally believed that genetic changes and mutations of the cell DNA lie behind this disorder.

What causes cancer?​

These erroneous changes in our genetic profile (DNA mutations) can sometimes be inherited from our parents or be develop during our lifetime as a result of many different factors we call carcinogens. Factors which are most commonly associated with higher risk of developing cancer are tobacco smoke, alcohol, diet, age, radiation, air pollution, ultraviolet light plus many others. Each cancer has its own somewhat unique genetic background, and as it grows it continues to change even further.

In the base of this genetic change is the sensitive balance of two types of genes; one which is regulating cell growth and division that goes under the name proto-oncogenes, and one that programs cell death known as tumour suppressor genes. When some of the factors mentioned above change them, proto-oncogenes become oncogenes, and this alters their function. Tumour suppressor genes are involved in cell life cycle regulation and like proto-oncogenes, change (mutations) to them causes their malfunction.

What does cancer mean?​

 These Inherited mutations or carcinogens caused DNA mutations can cause loss of cell growth control, cell maturation control and lastly loss of cell death control. Some cells start to grow where they are not supposed to and some just grow old but can’t die and finish their life cycle. This causes them to form masses or chunks of cells called tumours. So, the cancer definition can be summed up as tumours (made out of erroneous growing cells) that are aggressive in their nature and termed malignant. Since cancer sometimes appear to have an outwards spreading nature, the word cancer originally comes from the old Greek word for crab (3).

How does cancer spread?​

Cancer cells are malignant, which means they can spread over, or invade nearby tissue. Sometimes, cancer cells can break of from the mass and enter bloodstream or other fluid systems in the bodylike lymph system and spread to distant parts of the body. This plus their ability to grow uncontrollably are hallmarks of malignant cancers.

What is metastasis?​

Like mentioned above, one of the key abilities of malignant cancer is to spread locally or to distant parts of body. When cancer spreads into distant parts of body it forms new masses of cells which are called metastases. These consist of the same cells that make up the primary cancer. Metastasis is a shared trait of almost all cancers and can occur through three paths: blood, lymph and spreading through body cavities and surfaces.

What does benign mean? Are benign tumours dangerous?

Benign tumours unlike malignant can’t spread and invade distant or nearby tissue. Once removed they usually don’t return, while malignant sometimes have tendency to return. In spite of this, some benign tumours can be dangerous too. Big benign brain tumours if not treated, can cause potential life threatening harm.

How does cancer look like?​

There are a lot of cancer classifications, but oneof the simplest separates them in two groups. Solid tumours are solid masses of tissue, while cancers of the blood, for example leukaemia, don’t form solid masses.

The most common division in medical practise however is the one between carcinomas and sarcomas. Sarcoma is a name usually attributed to fleshy cancers (3) (they originate from muscle, connective tissue etc.), while carcinomas are derived from epithelium such as glands, skin, colon, lung, liver, breast, prostate etc.

What are the chances of getting cancer
(the 10 most common ones)

Risk of developing cancer is different from individual to individual and differs even among the same type of cancer based upon the unique risk factors that person is exposed to throughout life. There are certain specific cancers which are connected to certain populations, ethnic groups and regions, and professions. In contrast, certain types of cancer show fairly widespread distribution throughout the world regardless of these factors. So, what are most common types of cancer?

How many people have cancer?​

There were an estimated 14.1 million cancer cases around the world in 2012, of these 7.4 million cases were in men and 6.7 million in women. This number is expected to increase to 24 million by 2035 (4). 1 out of 6 deaths globally can be attributed to cancer (8, 9). In the UK research states that 1 out of 2 people born after 1960 will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime. Every 2 minutes someone is diagnosed and that amounts to around 360, 000 new cases per year just in the UK (6). That means cancer is and will continue to be one of the leading health problems worldwide as more and more cases are registered anually worldwide.

Cancer in the population​

Statistics conclude that in both sexes there is somewhat the same chance of getting certain cancer types. For example as of 2018 American Cancer Society estimates that out of all new cases of cancer, lung cancer will constitute around 13-14% which makes it most frequent cancer occuring in both sexes.

Risk of cancer in population​

Similiar numbers are contributed to colon & rectum with 9% of all male cancer cases and 7% female cases respectively. In contrast to that, some types of cancer are gender specific eg. breast cancer constituting 30% of all new cases in women and uterine cancer taking up 7%. As for male specific estimates, prostate cancer is predicted to take up as much as 14% of all new cases in the US (10). In the US between 2012-2014 cancers that showed highest risk of developing were as follows:

Table 1. Risk of developing cancer in the US (2012-2014)

Rank Cancer Risk of developing cancer (US 2012-2014)
1 Breast* 12.4%
2 Prostate ** 11.6%
3 Lung and bronchus 6.4%
4 Colorectum 4.3%
5 Skin melanoma 3.0%
6 Uterine corpus 2.8%
7 Urinary bladder 2.4%
8 Non-Hodgkin lymphoma 2.1%
9 Kidney and renal pelvis 1.6%
10 Pancreas 1.5%

*women only, **men only

                These numbers show lifetime risk for people who are cancer free at the start of selected age interval. This goes to show that these diseases will burden general population and health system even further in future and that fighting cancer needs to be strategically and sistematically aproached by international organizations, nations and even on a level of individual.

If cancer is in the family​

Science is already familiar with the fact that certain types of cancer can be inherited through genes that we get from our parents or cousins. That means, cancer in the family will increase the risk of developing it during lifetime. Although significant, this is not always the case.

For example, breast cancer can be inherited from female individuals in the family who had breast cancer, by inheriting a mutation in a gene called BRCA (BReast CAncer gene). In most cases, BRCA is the only risk factor for having breast cancer.

Some women don’t develope breast cancer even though their female cousins had it. Less than 3 out of every 100 breast cancers (3%) are caused by an inherited faulty gene. The genes that increase the risk of breast cancer and can be tested for are BRCA1, BRCA2, TP53 and PTEN (7).

Of all women with a faulty BRCA1 gene, between 40 to 60 out of a 100 (40 to 60%) will develop ovarian cancer at some point in their lives appart from the risk associated with developing breast cancer.

Between 10 and 30 out of 100 women with a faulty BRCA2 gene (10 to 30%) will develop ovarian cancer at some point. A BRCA2 gene fault also increases the risk of breast cancer (in men and women) and prostate cancer in men (7).

Prostate cancer is both a clinically and genetically varied disease with inherited factors predicted to account for 40% to 50% of cases based upon some studies (5).

Some inherited genes can increase the risk of developing bowel cancer and cause conditions which are associated with bowel cancer forming like familial adenomatous polyposis or others. Around 1 in 20 cases of bowel cancer (5%) occur in people who have other family members with bowel cancer (7).

Between 5 to 20 in 100 thyroid cancers (5 to 20%) are medullary thyroid cancers. About 25 out of 100 of these (25%) are caused by an inherited faulty RET gene (7).

What are different stages of cancer?

Treatment of cancer is a fairly complex topic and it can be even said that treatment should be custom tailored for each individual case. But for clinicians, cancer staging is an important tool in approach to therapy and managment of cancer and especially prognosis.

Staging vs grading

 It is important to differentiate between cancer staging and grading. Grading defines biological characteristics of cancer tissue, such as cell division rate, chemical and immunological composition, cell compartement size ratio, and etc.

TMN classification ilustrates expansion of cancer cells through certain parts of body. T representing primary tumour size, N describing if cancer cells reached lymph nodes and M describing metastasis.

By combining cancer staging and grading, doctors can determine what best options for each individual cancer are. Once cancer stage is determined, doctors can apply clinical treatment guidelines for specific cancer.

Stages of cancer​

Cancers are upon above mentioned information staged from number 1 to 4 or more commonly in Roman letters as I to IV. When cancer is staged at first stage survival and treatment options are a lot better than in later stages. For example, women diagnosed with breast cancer at stage 1, have close to 100% survival rate as opposed to women diagnosed at stage 4 with around 22%.

One thing to keep in mind is that these numbers are all generalized approximations and individual cases can differ a lot. Usually this depends on the unique background of each individual, previous disease, smoking and other factors that can change the outcome of the disease.

5-year relative survival rate​

To keep track of survival in certain stages, a concept of 5-year relative survival rate is used. However, people mostly live longer, often much longer than 5 year mentioned period. What that actually shows is a comparison of survival in a fixed time period between people diagnosed with certain type of cancer in comparison to overall population.

To give an example, if 5-year relative survival rate is 90% for a certain cancer, it means that on average 90% of the people that are diagnosed have the same chances of survival as the people who don’t have cancer.

What is the survival rate of the different cancer stages​

The 5-year relative survival rates differ from one cancer to another, but one can be certain that in early stages prognosis and overall treatment and financial burden are a comparably smaller than in later stages. The table below presents most common cancers and what is their 5-year survival rate in different stages as compiled by American Cancer society.

Table 2. 5-year relative survival rates trough stages of the most common cancers (10-14)

5-year relative survival rate for all age groups
Cancer Stage I Stage II Stage III Stage IV
Breast ~100% 93% 72% 22%
Lung and bronchi IA 92-77%; IB- 68% IIA-60%; IIB-53% IIIA-36%; IIIB-26%; IIIC-13% IVA-10%; IVB-<1%
Colorectum 92% IIA-87%; IIB-68% IIIA-89% IIIB-69%;IIIC-53% 11%
Skin melanoma IA-97% ; IB-92% IIA-81%; IIB-70%; IIC-53% IIIA-78%;IIIB-59%; IIIC-40% 15-20%
Uterine corpus IA-88%; IB -75% II-69% IIIA-58%; IIIB-50%;IIIC-47% 15%
Urinary bladder 88% 63% 46% 15%
Thyroid ~100% ~100% 93% 51%
Kidney and renal pelvis 81% 74% 53% 8%
Pancreas IA-14%; IB-12% IIA-7%; IIB-5% 3% 1%

These numbers are meant to be an orientation tool and have a way to put in perspective what difference early detection can make.

Benefits of regular testing to early detect signs of cancer

Developing and creating new ways to test and diagnose cancer is one of the most important ways to combat this disease.

Most of cancers are totally curable when caught in early stages. But since early stage cancers sometimes don’t give any signs of presence or symptoms, regular testing can lead to early cancer detection, which means – greater chance of survival.

This means that the recovery period is short and leaves a lot of place for body to recover to the fullest. Treatment is much simpler, less dangerous with fewer risks for patients and much more cost and time effective.

Home cancer tests on the market today​

With advancement of technology, things that were in the past done in labs with specialized expensive equipment and with complex methods, nowadays have evolved to be more cheap, economical and more available to everyone.

 To detect cancer in early stages, before it shows symptoms is an imperative of modern public health policies.  A lot of new technologies are developed for that cause, and home cancer tests are one of them.

Cancer screening and home testing kits​

Policies and methods developed to detect cancer early on are now considered part of global, and many countries public health goals. Home testing kits for bowel cancer, are among other, one of the methods employed or considered to be employed in countries like the UK, the US, New Zealand and Australia.

What cancers a person can test for​

There is no universal cancer test that one can take (16). Today, internet is a place where a lot of test are offered from many manufacturers and suppliers. The home cancer test market is on the rise and one can find a lot of websites which advertise kits with different sets specified to a certain cancer type or types.

One of the most popular and available kits are for colon (colorectal), prostate, breast, liver, cervical cancer.

Colorectal cancer test kits​

Most popular ones are that test for hidden (occult) blood in stool sample which can help with early stage bowel cancer detection increase. These tests are also called fecal occult blood test or FOBT.

The first type of the test use chemicals to detect chemical compounds found in blood and the most popular one is guaiac FOBT. For it to be accurate a diet without red meat or vitamin C is needed in preparation, which otherwise it could influence the result (18).

The second one uses other method of detecting traces of blood in the stool and is called fecal immunohistochemical test or FIT or iFOBT (17). Using a simple tool to collect stool and store it, you can send it away for testing in laboratory. It doesn’t need any preparation or special diets.

One other test used is for detecting cancer DNA in the stool (feces). Precancerous and cancer cells shed in guts and mix with the stool, so this test can be used to detect their presence in feces (17).

A lot of manufacturers make test like this on the market today under different names like EZ DETECTtm, Orion diagnostics QuickRead iFOBT, LetsGetChecked,myCare bowel health care test, PRIMA® home tests .

Cervical cancer test kits​

Cervical cancer is almost 100% caused by presence of sexually transmitted virus called HPV. Some strains of viruses can be more dangerous than others and usually are symptomless when contracted. These type of tests are meant to detect those strains that are considered to have high risk of causing cervical cancer with the most common types being 16, 18, 33 etc.

List of manufacturers include, myLAb box, Eve Kit, LetsGetChecked plus many others.

Prostate cancer test kits​

These kits use a blood sample collected to measure the level of prostate specific antigen (PSA) in blood. It is produced only by prostate and can be found in traces in blood.

If the indicator points to positive or numbers received from the lab are higher it can suggest prostate cancer or prostate enlargement or infection which are a non-life threatening.

These tests are made by PRIMA® home tests, SANITOETS, Napiers herbalists, PSA laboratory, Biosafe® and more.

Liver function tests​

These test are used to determine the level of liver products in urine which are called urobilinogen and bilirubin. Basically, a stick is dipped into a urine sample and color that shows on the stick is compared to visual color scale given on the pack.

Other type of testing is blood sample that is collected at home and then sent to lab to be tested for specific liver products and parameters in blood.

This test is meant to discover liver dysfunction signs in union with symptoms like nausea, vomiting, itching and yellow skin.      

Manufacturers like One Step®, Atlas, LiverCheck and many others make these kits which are sold through lot of websites.


How accurate the are the home order test kits?​

Most of these tests mentioned have a good ability to show that a certain sample is positive which means their use can be valuable tool in the path to diagnosing cancer.

Fecal occult blood tests namely iFOBT have been shown to have good cancer predicting value as much as 80% percent. This means that out of all positive test results, with further testing like colonoscopy many of them are actually proved to be cases of colorectal cancer. Also, when the test is negative, with 95% certainty can colorectal cancer be ruled out. (15)

As for PSA in blood tests, if a value higher than normal is detected it is highly suggestive to do further testing. Combined with this it can with certainty be determined if this value is connected to prostate cancer or only enlarged prostate which is benign state.

Sometimes the results affect things like sexual intercourse in the last week or riding bicycle. Otherwise it is really precise when it comes to detecting higher PSA levels.  

HPV testing is proven to be more precise when it comes to diagnosing HPV infection and crucial in tracking changes to cervix. It is even disputed that it should be done instead of PAP smear test in low-income countries as it is more precise.

Price and ease comparison compared to going to the doctor​

Home test cancer kits are developed to save time, money and stress of going to a doctor. It is a quick and simple way check the state of your body without setbacks of formal laboratory test money and time wise.

This way with certainty of tests provided by medical care one can from his/her home track his health and if need arises ask for doctors help early on.

Nowadays some manufacturers even offer kits in which a person can test for 2 or even more types of cancer, which is more convenient and helps to obtain in an effective way multiple results which would consume much of time and finances.


There are many ways to test for certain types of cancer, and ordinarily will involve a lot of different aspects of diagnostics- radiological, biochemical, surgical, pathological and many more ways of testing.

If need be, all of this will be used to detect traces of cancers in body, but it is important to stress that the road to diagnosing cancer usually starts with less to more aggressive methods. In this way, home testing can be considered non invasive, non-aggressive and convenient method. It is a quick and intelligent method to keep track of changes to your body and in due time contact your doctor which may point to cancer and help beat the cancer to a punch.

  2. Gary D. Hammer, Stephen J. McPhee, 2014., Neoplasm, Pathophysiology of Disease, 7th Edition
  3. Vinay Kumar, Abul K. Abbas, Nelson Fausto, and Jon C. Aster, 2010.,Robbins and Cotran: Pathologic Basis of Disease, 8th Edition
  4. General author- unknown date of publishing-
  5. Veda N. Giri, Jennifer Beebe-Dimmer, 2016., Seminars in Oncology
  6. Unknown author, unknown date of publishing
  7. Unknown author, last reviewed June 2nd 2015.,
  8. Rebecca L. Siegel, Kimberly D. Miller, Ahmedin Jemal, Cancer statistics 2018., CA a cancer journal for clinicians,
  10. The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team,
  11. The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team,
  12. The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
  13. The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team,
  14. American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team,
  15. unknown author, unknown date of publishing