Incidentally diagnosed cancer and commonly preceding clinical scenarios: a cross-sectional descriptive analysis of English audit data

BMJ Open. 2019 Sep 17;9(9):e028362. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2018-028362.


Objectives: Cancer can be diagnosed in the absence of tumour-related symptoms, but little is known about the frequency and circumstances preceding such diagnoses which occur outside participation in screening programmes. We aimed to examine incidentally diagnosed cancer among a cohort of cancer patients diagnosed in England.

Design: Cross-sectional study of national primary care audit data on an incident cancer patient population.

Setting: We analysed free-text information on the presenting features of cancer patients aged 15 or older included in the English National Audit of Cancer Diagnosis in Primary Care (2009-2010). Patients with screen-detected cancers or prostate cancer were excluded. We examined the odds of incidental cancer diagnosis by patient characteristics and cancer site using logistic regression, and described clinical scenarios leading to incidental diagnosis.

Results: Among the studied cancer patient population (n=13 810), 520 (4%) patients were diagnosed incidentally. The odds of incidental cancer diagnosis increased with age (p<0.001), with no difference between men and women after adjustment. Incidental diagnosis was most common among patients with leukaemia (23%), renal (13%) and thyroid cancer (12%), and least common among patients with brain (0.9%), oesophageal (0.5%) and cervical cancer (no cases diagnosed incidentally). Variation in odds of incidental diagnosis by cancer site remained after adjusting for age group and sex.There was a range of clinical scenarios preceding incidental diagnoses in primary or secondary care. These included the monitoring or management of pre-existing conditions, routine testing before or after elective surgery, and the investigation of unrelated acute or new conditions.

Conclusions: One in 25 patients with cancer in our population-based cohort were diagnosed incidentally, through different mechanisms across primary and secondary care settings. The epidemiological, clinical, psychological and economic implications of this phenomenon merit further investigation.

Keywords: health services administration & management; oncology; pathology; primary care; public health; radiology & imaging.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • England / epidemiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Incidental Findings*
  • Kidney Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Leukemia / epidemiology
  • Logistic Models
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms / epidemiology*
  • Thyroid Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Young Adult