Cancer, even if it is detected early and treated, is still a life risk disease. But the disease that is diagnosed or detected at an early stage, when it isn’t too large and the cancer cells have not spread to other parts of body, is more likely to be treated successfully and can save your life. 80% of patients in whom cancer is detected early can be cured. If cancer cells have spread in the body then effective treatment becomes more difficult, and generally a person’s chances of survival are much lower. Regular screening for the disease, therefore, should be part of every adult’s healthcare regimen.
Recognizing that the warning signs are unusual symptoms of the disease and taking prompt action rather than waiting to see whether they resolve themselves leads to early diagnosis. Increased awareness of possible warning signs of the disease, among physicians, health care providers and among the general public can play an important role in both prevention and early detection of the disease.
What are the different types of cancers?
The disease is caused by abnormal cells that grow and divide in an uncontrolled manner, leading to a rapid proliferation of new cells.
Here is a list of number of deaths by type of cancer between 2003 and 2007 in the United States according to the recent data of National Cancer Institute (NCI):
|Type of cancer||No. Of people killed|
|Lung and bronchial||792,495|
|Colon and rectal||268,783|
|Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma||104, 407|
|Liver and intrahepatic bile duct||79, 773|
Diagnosis at an early stage is crucial for successfully treating cancers of the breast, colon, mouth, skin, cervix, rectum and larynx as cancers in these parts of the body tend to spread rapidly.
If the disease is detected early, the 5-year survival rate is 90% versus only 10% if detected at a later stage, according to The American Cancer Society. In some of the cases the disease does not spread even without treatment.
What are the early signs and symptoms of cancer?
Some early symptoms which may be associated with the disease include:
- Unexplained weight loss
- Fever, pain or fatigue
- Persistent cough or hoarseness
- Change in bowel and bladder functions
- Unusual discharge or bleeding in urine, stool
- Breast lump, changes in size or shape
- Changes in skin, sore or new mole
- Urinary infections
Do note that developing any of the above symptoms should not set off alarm bells as many of these symptoms also overlap with other diseases or conditions which are not life-threatening in nature. However, it is always good to be cautious and get screened for the disease particularly if a combination of the above symptoms develop and persist for several days.
What are the advantages and benefits to a patient if cancer is detected early?
Early detection of the disease leads to a successful treatment if diagnosis is accurate and symptoms are first noticed. In such cases there are several advantages, some of which include:
- The symptoms which are detected might be at a reversible stage
- Effective treatment will slow down the deterioration in health at an earlier stage
- Treatment in some types of cancers are far more effective early on because the cancer has not yet metastasized or spread
- Diagnosis is more accurate at an early stage as the cancer is still localized and the symptoms are less complex
- Patients can undergo clinical trials and opportunities to try new therapies
- Patient can focus on completing life goals as there is still time
Why is screening important at an early stage of cancer?
Screening checks for cancerous tissue or abnormal cells that are not cancerous yet but may become cancerous in the future.
To really maximize the benefits of early detection, cancer screening should be conducted across a healthy population to identify individuals and confirm who have the disease, but do not yet display symptoms. Often people delay going for screening as there are no obvious symptoms or symptoms, if any, are considered too mild. In other cases, people are unwilling to get screened for the disease either because they never believe it will affect them or that they do not want to find out if they do.
Some common tests for the disease include:
- Mammography: This method is used for screening for breast cancer to reduce mortality from the disease among women aged 40 to 74
- Pap Test and human papillomavirus (HPV) testing: It reduces the incidence of cervical cancer by detecting and treating the HPV virus which, if left untreated, is a common cause of cervical cancer. This test also identifies abnormal cells and treats them before they become cancerous.
- Colonoscopy, sigmoidoscopy and high-sensitivity faecal occult blood tests (FOBTs): This test reduces deaths from colorectal cancer. FOBTs can detect abnormal colon growths or polyps that can be removed before they develop into cancer.
- PET-CT Scan (Positron Emission Tomography and Computed Tomography)– This screening helps to reduce lung cancer deaths among heavy smokers aged 55 to 74.
Some other Screening tests are Bone scan, Tumor marker test, Tissue Biopsy, Breast MRI, Alpha-fetoprotein blood test, CA-125 test, PSA test, Clinical and self-breast examination, Transvaginal ultrasound, Skin examination and Virtual Colonoscopy.
Screening help doctors detect and treat the disease at an early stage. Early diagnosis is important because when the abnormal tissues are detected before the cancer has manifested in the form of tumours or other obvious markets, it may be easier to treat. By the time symptoms started appearing, cancer may have already begun to spread across the body, making it much more difficult to treat.
Following are the 5 year survival rates of common types of the disease for those in whom cancer is detected early versus at a later stage (these survival rates are only the estimates from the data by The American Cancer Society). The 5 years survival rates measure the percentage of patients that live for at least 5 years after being diagnosed with cancer. However, in many cases the patients live much longer than 5 years.
|Type of Cancer||Stage 1||Stage IV||Diagnosed in Year|
|Colon||92%||12%||2004 to 2010|
|Breast||Close to 100%||22%||2007 to 2013|
|Invasive Epithelial Ovarian||78%||19%||2007 to 2013|
|Non-small cell Lung||92%||10%||1999 to 2010|
|Bladder||88%||15%||1988 to 2001|
Stage 1 usually means that the disease is still relatively small and localized to the tissue or organ where it has originated. Stage 4 means the disease has metastasized or spread beyond the organ or tissue where it originated, causing what is known as “secondary” cancer. For certain types of “galloping” or fast-spreading cancers, the time between Stage 1 and Stage 4 cancer is only a matter of months. This should convince you of the importance of undergoing a biannual cancer check to minimize the chances of detecting the disease after it has passed the first stage.
If you haven’t been screened for the disease in a while, we suggest you pick-up the phone and schedule your next cancer-screening appointment. Time does not wait for anyone. Especially when you have cancer.