Detecting cancer early

A new study suggests detecting cancer early can drastically improve survival rates, but experts say it’s not always possible.

A new study by Cancer Research UK found the early detection at the earliest stage of eight common cancers meant 90 per cent of patients were still alive ten years on, compared to just five per cent in those whose cancer was discovered at stage four.

One of the reasons for this increased survival rate is that there are more treatments available to those diagnosed in the early stages, and they’re often more effective, before the cancer had spread.

According to Cancer Research UK, more than a quarter of eight common cancers -  bladder, bowel, breast, cervical, womb, malignant melanoma, ovarian and testicular - were diagnosed in stage three or four. But about 80 per cent of patients diagnosed with these common cancers at the earlier stages, one or two, survive for at least 10 years.

Paul Grogan from the Cancer Council Australia agrees the majority of cancers are easier to treat if detected early, but it not always possible to screen or test for them before the cancer takes hold and symptoms show.

“On a whole-of-cancer basis, earlier diagnosis is associated with reduced mortality and improved survival,” says Mr Grogan.

“There are, however, hundreds of different cancer types and our current ability to detect them, and to treat them effectively when they are detected, varies considerably,” he says.

“A key difficulty everywhere is that the technology required to detect most cancers before they start to become symptomatic is limited,” Mr Grogan says.
doctors in theatre
The Cancer Council says population screening, or age specific testing, is generally the most effective and efficient way to detect cancer early. However, the only cancers that are recommended for screening on a population basis currently are bowel, cervical and breast cancers. 

“There are other tests for individuals who may be at increased risk of a number of other cancers, or who have concerns, but these are not appropriate for population screening programs,” says Mr Grogan.

“Testing people without symptoms for other cancers can be more complex, potentially riskier and should only be done in consultation with medical professionals based on the individual patient’s circumstances,” Mr Grogan says.

While it may not always be possible to screen for every type of cancer, experts say it is important to be aware of your body and see a doctor if any health problems persist.

And to lower your risk of cancer, it’s important to focus on a healthy lifestyle. At least one third of all cancers can be prevented, by not smoking, eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, avoiding sun exposure and limiting alcohol consumption. 

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