How fast can cancer kill?

In this thread, we’re talking about a rather unfortunate cancer diagnosis: . And one poster raised an interesting point:

Are there any cancers that will kill you in a day? Or within a week of the first symptoms? What’s the very fastest that cancer can kill you, from “I feel unwell” to “Gee, I miss the fjords”?

Within a day of what? My father died four days after he was diagnosed. He was showing no symptoms at all. He was in the hospital for a completely unrelated injury and the tumor showed up on the x-ray.

If he hadn’t been there for the injury, he would have died before the cancer was discovered.

^Yep. I know a guy who was diagnosed with some bone marrow cancer postmortem. He was found dead, no antemortem signs.

I don’t think the question is answerable; it’s too broad.

One of my aunts refused to see a doctor over the last years of her life. When she finally went to see one about her multiple complaints, she was diagnosed with metastatic bone cancer and died within three days. There was simply nothing that could be done when the disease had progressed that far.

My mother, chastened by her sister’s “swift” death, went to the doctor far more regularly after that. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in late 2005 and died in late 2006 after undergoing both chemotherapy to fight the disease and radiation as a palliative measure. So she lasted about a year, but that was because she caught it earlier; if she’d kept putting off a doctor visit until the last minute, her story might have sounded like my aunts.

One of my sisters found a cancerous lump in her breast around 1996 or so. Got it early, got it out, went on to annoy me for the last 15 years and is still going strong.

It’s really difficult to answer this question because all cancers start out as microscopic and undetectable with our current technology. If we COULD detect cancers at that level, then we would be able to stop many of them before they kill.
Unfortunately with our current technology we often don’t find out cancerous tumors exist until they are large enough to compress a healthy body structure and cause symptoms (like when a brain tumor grows large enough to compress a healthy part of the brain and the person begins to have trouble with the functions of that part of the brain). At that point the tumor has been growing for months or years.
Some tumors do tend to grow faster than others. Glioblastoma multiforme (unfortunately the most common kind of cancer arising in the brain) comes to mind as a very rapidly growing and aggressive cancer.
The longer you have the cancer in your body, the higher the chance of metastasis, which is what makes many cancers so deadly. Many people with breast cancer die not because of the tumor in the breast but because that tumor spreads to a vital organ such as the liver, lungs, or brain. Since metastasis is a microscopic process, again it’s impossible to say for sure exactly at what point someone’s cancer goes from curable to incurable and deadly.

It seems to me that the question is very difficult to answer. The fact that you’ve had a cancer diagnosed and then a day later you die from that cancer doesn’t mean that the cancer killed you in a day; the cancer could have been growing for some time before it was diagnosed and either it was a fluke that you died so fast after the diagnosis or you weren’t diagnosed until the cancer directly caused some other major problem.

That’s my mother’s story. They excised the breast tumors (I think) but by then the cancer had spread so greatly it killed her anyway.

There are super-aggressive cancers that are difficult to detect, and those are more to “kill you fast.” Is that what you’re asking?

Thyroid cancer is an example. Something north of 95% of the cases of thyroid cancer are very treatable, and long-term prognosis is excellent. Anaplastic thyroid cancer, however, is really aggressive and often isn’t detected until there’s not much time left at all. (These are Wiki links, but were supported by information from my doctor.) An anecdotal case from my doctor features his mother-in-law. He’s one of the best in his field and works at an excellent nationally-known hospital, and as soon as she even asked a question about what was going on, she had the best care available. She lived, I believe, five weeks after diagnosis. There just wasn’t anything to be done.

Some can be very slow, a colleague and friend of mine received treatement fo breast cancer and was treated successfully. Almost a decade later they found infact it hadn’t gone away, though it took about a year or more for her to die after having been re-diagnosed.

I’ve had requests for rush diagnoses of lung cancer on a Friday (suspected small cell carcinoma*) so that chemo/radiation could be started on the weekend to keep a patient’s partially obstructing tumor from completely blocking his airways. Small cell CA is one of those very rapidly growing tumors that can cause trouble quickly.

Of course, even less virulent ones can kill in a short time by (for example) eroding into a blood vessel and causing massive hemorrhage.

*almost always associated with a history of smoking.

Of course cancer always takes some time to develop internally. Some cancers are faster than others. There are cases where the individual is able to lead a normal life without even knowing the cancer is developing. I suppose it’s even possible to die suddenly of cancer and have the autopsy determine that fact. Your first symptom could be death. I think immediate death is rare today from cancer, but I have seen some fairly swift deaths.

In many instances like this, the breast cancer has already metastasized to bone marrow, where it is extremely difficult to eradicate. There, it simmers for years until some unknown trigger causes it to turn aggressive again. I’ve read summaries of studies that one of the biggest problems is that cancers of this sort survive chemotherapy and become resistant to it, meaning that each subsequent bout requires stronger and longer chemotherapy to disable - not kill off - the cancer. IIRC doctors are now coming to the understanding that these cancers are never really cured. They’re just sent into remission for a period of time, until they become active again. Eventually, the cancer becomes resistant to all available treatments and has spread so much that nothing will put it back in remission, and the patient succumbs.

A friend of mine, when I met her, was a 10 year breast cancer survivor. The third year I knew her, a bone metastes was found. She spent the next five years of her life fighting round after round against those damn tumors. After four years, everyone knew she was terminal and any chemotherapy was done to extend her life and, hopefully, its quality. She went off treatment when the treatment got as bad as the disease. Two weeks later, she died. (Still miss you, Barb. You were one fantastic lady.)

Maybe the more relevant question would be, Are there cancers out there that show almost zero symptoms until the final days?

For relevance to the penis case, the question should be something like “Is there a cancer where immediate treatment would lead to 60% or better survival probability after 10 years but where waiting 3 days for treatment would lead to 20% or less survival probability after 10 years?”

Modify the numbers as desired. The key is whether a few days’ delay would cause a drastic drop in survival probability. In the short-time-to-death examples above, treatment wouldn’t have helped even if it were attempted a day or three before the cancer was discovered.

Maybe the question is: what cancer type has the shortest median survival given no treatment?

I would guess something like pancreatic cancer (3-5 months) or glioblastoma multiforme (3 months).

In this old thread, I mentioned howcancer can kill someone by a number of mechanisms.

In terms of cancer killing someone ultra-quickly, (off the top of my head) there are a few ways:

  1. Probably the most likely cause for a rapid and sudden unexpected cancer death is via a pulmonary embolism, i.e. a blood clot to the lungs. In fact, virtually everyone with cancer is predisposed to blood clots.

  2. People with cancer tend to have weakened immune systems (either directly due to the cancer itself or from its treatment). As a result, they are at risk for overwhelming, fulminant infection. In such circumstances, people can go from being apparently well to dead from infection in a matter of hours.

  3. Some cancers spread to the brain. If they suddenly start bleeding, the effect is indistinguishable from having a stroke and, of course, can therefore be rapidly fatal. Melanoma has a particular tendency to do this.

  4. Some cancers can erode into a blood vessel or into the lining of the heart (spread to the heart itself is very rare). If that happens, the person can bleed to death or suffer heart stoppage, respectively. In either case, though, death occurs suddenly.

  5. Cancers frequently spread to the bone marrow and crowd out the normal cells found there. Since the bone marrow is where the various blood cells are manufactured, including the platelets which help clot the blood, a person affected in this way is at risk for sudden, massive hemorrhage (bleeding). Obviously, that can kill quickly, especially if the bleeding happens in the brain. This problem is common in people suffering from leukemia (cancer of the white blood cells).

I’m sure there must be more ways to die suddenly (and early on) from cancer, but I’ll leave it at this.

I don’t think those are the fastest.

Without cites, I’ll say:

Probably about the fastest is a type of lung cancer called small cell lung carcinoma where, untreated, death is usual in weeks.

Acute leukemia, untreated, can kill in days, although weeks is probably more likely.

With treatment, I agree that both pancreas and brain (glioblastoma multiforme) have horrible prognoses. And, even with treatment, non-small-cell lung cancer that has spread has an average survival of about nine or ten months. It doesn’t get much worse than that.

Somewhat off topic, people may be surprised to learn that advanced congestive heart failure also has an average survival of about nine months. So, it’s not just cancer that can kill quickly.


Great, spiders, is there a God? and now this … you really don’t want me to sleep well tonight do you? :eek:

Sorry. It sounded like you wanted the … er … straight dope, so I didn’t soften that.