Why is Spotting Cancer Early Important?

January 13, 2024
4 mins read

By Cancer Research UKFriday, June 7, 2013.When
we talk about ‘spotting cancer early’ we mean diagnosing cancer at an
early stage, before it’s had the chance to get too big or spread to
other parts of the body. Diagnosing cancer at an early stage means it
can often be easily removed or treated. If the cancer has spread,
treatment becomes more difficult, and in almost all cases a person’s
chances of surviving that cancer are much lower. So finding and treating
cancer at an early stage can make a real difference.                   
What’s the impact of early diagnosis?                            Below are some examples of how spotting cancer early can make a real difference to survival:The
most serious type of skin cancer is malignant melanoma, and the most
important factor affecting a person’s chances of surviving is how thick
the cancer is at the time it is diagnosed1. If the melanoma is less than
1mm thick, 92 out of 100 people survive at least ten years after
diagnosis. But if the melanoma is more than 4mm thick at the time it’s
diagnosed, far fewer people survive for ten years – just 50 out of 100
people.Lung
cancer is the second most common cancer in the UK, with more than
40,000 people diagnosed each year. For some types of lung cancer if it
is caught at the earliest stage, more than 70% of people survive their
disease for at least 5 years. But lung cancer currently has one of the
lowest survival outcomes of any cancer because over two-thirds of
patients are diagnosed at a late stage when successful treatment is not
possible.Delay
in the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer seems to be linked to
lower survival. This is likely to be because delay is linked to later
stage disease, reducing the chances of successful treatment2.Research
shows that the link between delay and cancer survival is complex and
difficult to study. So far it looks like delay in diagnosing and
treating cancer of the mouth and top of throat, testicles, lung and
melanoma and sarcoma may be linked with lower survivalSo
spotting cancer at an early stage can increase the chances of survival.
But improving survival rates is not just down to earlier diagnosis –
ensuring patients receive the most effective and appropriate treatment
for them is also an important part of the jigsaw. Scientists estimate
that up to 10,000 cancer deaths each year could be avoided through
earlier diagnosis and access to optimal treatment                                Which symptoms are more likely to be cancer?                        There
are more than 200 different types of cancer, each with different
symptoms. Many of the possible symptoms of cancer can also be caused by
other, much less serious, things. Research has helped us understand the
chance that particular symptoms will turn out to be caused by cancer6,7.
This is called the ‘predictive value’ of a symptom. Jaundice (yellowing
of the skin) in older people is a sign of pancreatic cancer with quite a
high ‘predictive value’. And blood in urine in older people is another
example of a symptom which has quite a high chance of being caused by
cancer. In both cases there are other possible causes of these symptoms.Doctors
use information about the ‘predictiveness’ of symptoms, along with
other information about an individual (such as age, family history, how
long a symptom has lasted) to help decide if a patient needs  further
tests.  It
is also important that the public are aware of the key signs and
symptoms of cancer so that they have the best chance of spotting the
disease early. Some of these key symptoms of cancer can be found on the key signs and symptoms
page, which is based in part on the European Code Against Cancer8. All
of these signs and symptoms could be down to things other than cancer.
But it’s important to see your doctor if you spot any of these changes.But
this list doesn’t cover everything. Rather than remembering lists of
symptoms, it’s best to get to know your own body and see your GP about
any unusual or persistent changes.                        What are the reasons for late diagnosis?                                        There
is a growing body of scientific research looking into the many possible
causes of late diagnosis, and it’s an important part of Cancer Research
UK’s work. We now know that around a quarter of cancer cases in the UK
are diagnosed through emergency admission to hospital (mainly people
turning up to accident and emergency departments)9. Most patients
diagnosed in this way have lower chances of survival compared to other
patients.There can be a number of reasons for delays in cancer diagnosis, for example:Low
awareness of cancer signs and symptoms among the general population10
can mean that people don’t see the GP as soon as they might which could
delay a diagnosis.Some people might delay because they’re worried about what the doctor might find or they don’t want to waste the doctor’s time.There can be delays in GPs referring patients on for tests or treatment.Delays can occur in getting an appointment at the hospital.

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