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Cancer Prevention: Early Diagnosis, Screening, Stages & Treatment

By Dr. Muzammil Shaikh in Head, Face and Neck Cancer Program , Medical Oncology

Aug 11 , 2023 | 7 min read

With millions of people at a high risk of cancer globally, it is extremely important to address this growing concern. In India alone, the number of people suffering from cancer is projected to rise from around 14.6 lakhs in 2022 to about 16 lakhs in 2025. 1 in 10 Indians is diagnosed with cancer and 1 in 15 dies from the disease.

Fortunately, early detection and treatment of cancer can help in saving lives. With routine cancer screening, cancer can be detected early, increasing the possibility of successful treatment and in turn, boosting survival rates. This blog post focuses on the importance of early cancer detection and treatment as vital elements in reducing cancer-related illnesses and deaths.

What is Cancer Prevention?

Cancer prevention and early detection are the two key components in the battle against cancer. They aim at tackling cancer before it becomes difficult and too late to treat. Cancer prevention involves understanding the root causes of the disease, understanding the contributing factors for cancer development and employing proactive strategies to minimise the risks. 

The strategies include getting screening tests regularly, getting vaccine shots and making healthier lifestyle choices such as avoiding tobacco, eating healthy, exercising, restricting alcohol consumption, skin protection and more. Focus on cancer prevention can go a long way in reducing the incidence of the disease and promoting well-being.

Early Diagnosis of Cancer

Early cancer diagnosis plays a vital role in enhancing patient outcomes and survival rates. Detecting cancer in the earliest stage helps to increase the probability of successful treatment. Delayed or unavailable cancer treatment can result in increased treatment-related issues, greater healthcare costs and lower survival rates.

The objective of early diagnosis programs is to reduce the number of late-stage cancer diagnoses in two ways:

  • By increasing awareness of initial cancer symptoms among the general public and healthcare workers.
  • Improving the accessibility, referral process and affordability for cancer diagnosis and treatment.

These efforts can help to promote timely cancer detection, diagnosis and intervention, thereby enhancing survival rates. 

Cancer Screening

Cancer screening includes using simple tests to identify individuals who may have cancer but may not exhibit or experience any symptoms. Screening is a proactive approach to detecting cancer at an early stage so that it can be treated. Some of the key aspects of cancer screening include:

  • Goals: The key objectives of cancer screening are to reduce the incidence of cancer among people and mortality rates because of the disease.
  • Advantages of early detection: Screening plays a vital role in identifying cancer in the early stages when it is much easier to treat and possibly cure. Early detection also helps in effective treatment because cancer may not have had the chance to develop and spread widely.
  • Screening methods: There are many types of screening methods including:
  • History and physical examination of the body to check for signs of cancer and to evaluate overall health.
  • Lab tests for testing of blood, tissue, urine, etc.
  • Imaging procedures to check the body internally.
  • Genetic tests analyse the cells and tissues to detect any changes in chromosomes or genes that indicate an individual’s risk of specific cancer.

When a screening test result is abnormal, then further diagnostic testing may be recommended to confirm or rule out cancer. It is important to understand that cancer screening comes with potential limitations and risks such as false-positive or false-negative results, and adverse effects and detecting cancer via screening may not improve the health of the person or increase survival rates. 

Cancer Stages

Once cancer is diagnosed, it is important to determine the stage of cancer. Staging helps in monitoring the progression of cancer and determining the treatment plan and prognosis. It enables doctors to design the most effective treatment plan to ensure the best outcomes and best probability of cure for patients.

 Most cancers are categorised into 4 stages, depending on the size and location of the tumour:

Stage

Characteristics

Stage 0

In that stage 0, the cancer is “in situ” or “in place” and is located in the place where it originated and has not spread elsewhere. Stage 0 of cancer is usually curable.

Stage I

Known as early-stage cancer, in stage I, the tumour is localised to a small area and has not spread to the surrounding lymph nodes or tissues. Stage I is subdivided into 1A or 1B.

Stage II

In this stage, the cancer has grown bigger but has not spread to other parts. Stage 2 is divided into 2A and 2B.

Stage III

The cancer in this stage is larger and there is a possible spread to the lymph node or other tissues. This stage is subdivided into 3A, 3B and 3C based on tumour size, location and, level of spread to the nodes.

Stage IV

In this stage, the cancer has spread to other parts and organs in the body. The 4th stage is also known as advanced or metastatic cancer.

Cancer Treatment

There are several types of cancer treatments and depend on multiple factors including type and stage of cancer, overall health and personal preferences. The goals of each treatment are different and may be personalised according to the needs of the individual.

 Different cancer therapy objectives may include:

  • Cure: The main objective of treatment is to cure cancer enabling the person to live a normal, healthy life. The potential for a cure will depend on the specific cancer and its characteristics.
  • Primary treatment: The focus of the treatment is to destroy and eradicate the cancer. Some of the common primary cancer treatments include surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy.
  • Adjuvant treatment: The treatment aims to eliminate any residual cancer cells after the primary treatment to prevent recurrence. Examples of adjuvant therapies include radiation therapy, chemotherapy and hormone therapy.
  • Palliative treatment: Palliative treatments are often combined with curative cancer treatments and are usually focused on managing cancer-related symptoms and alleviating the side effects of cancer treatment. Some common approaches include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and hormone therapy.

Cancer treatment options include:

Treatment

Description

Surgery

Removes as much of the tumour as possible.

Chemotherapy

Uses drugs to destroy the cancer cells.

Radiation therapy

High-energy beams (x-rays or protons) are used to destroy cancer cells, brachytherapy(internally) or external beam radiation (externally)

Bone marrow transplant

Also called stem cell transplant, the therapy replaces the diseased bone marrow with healthy stem cells of the person or a donor.

Immunotherapy

Harnesses the body’s immune system to recognise and destroy cancer cells.

Hormone therapy

Blocks or removes the hormones responsible for fuelling hormone-sensitive cancers like prostate or breast cancer.

Targeted drug therapy

Targets specific abnormalities in the cancer cells and destroys them by disrupting their means of survival.

Clinical trials

Investigating innovative treatment approaches via research studies.

Difference Between Cancer Screening and Early Diagnosis

Cancer screening and early diagnosis of cancer are two distinct strategies with specific goals aimed at fighting the disease and improving patient prognosis. Although both have a common objective of detecting cancer in the early stages, the purpose and approach of both differ.

  • Cancer Screening
  • This involves the testing of asymptomatic people to identify potential signs of cancer before the manifestation of symptoms.
  • This helps to detect cancer and pre-cancer conditions at an early stage for successful treatment outcomes.
  • Screening is usually done by conducting tests on large populations.
  • Uses methods such as pap smears, mammograms, colonoscopies and other screening tests to detect cancer.
  • Early Diagnosis
  • This approach involves the detection of cancer as soon as symptoms or abnormalities occur, ensuring timely medical intervention for treatment outcomes.
  • Detects cancer at an early stage irrespective of participation in prior screening.
  • Uses routine check-ups or individual awareness to identify symptoms.
  • Uses methods such as symptom recognition, routine check-ups and follow-up tests.
  • Implications of cancer screening and early diagnosis
  • Both approaches have a common goal to ensure early cancer detection.
  • While cancer screening focuses on asymptomatic persons, early diagnosis depends on the recognition of symptoms.
  • Early diagnosis helps in timely and effective treatments, resulting in improved patient outcomes.
  • Understanding screening guidelines and recognising potential symptoms of cancer are vital. 

Diagnostic and Treatment Barriers to Early Cancer Detection

Early diagnosis programs can play an important role in removing barriers and reducing the delays between cancer detection and timely medical intervention. They can offer a focused approach to promote prompt action, thereby improving the chances of successful cancer treatment for patients and enhancing outcomes.

Some of the key aspects of early diagnosis programs include:

  • Educating people to recognise the symptoms of cancer and seek prompt medical attention.
  • Overcoming logistical, psychosocial and financial barriers that may prevent timely medical consultation and patients from getting prompt medical treatment.
  • Providing training for healthcare professionals about cancer symptom recognition and management.
  • Offering proper referral guidelines to ensure quick and accurate intervention when presented with symptoms.
  • Establishing readily-available diagnostic and treatment services.
  • Ensuring high-quality, affordable and prompt medical care.
  • Addressing issues such as poor public awareness, ill-defined referral pathways and inadequate knowledge at the primary healthcare level.
  • Quick diagnostic follow-up and medical treatment for people who have screened positive for cancer.

Conclusion

To sum up, prioritising the prevention of cancer through early detection and treatment is key to reducing the impact of the devastating disease. By focusing on awareness, improving healthcare access and addressing barriers, the probability of early diagnosis and effective treatment can be greatly enhanced, resulting in better health outcomes.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Can you Prevent Cancer by Early Detection?

Early detection and diagnosis of cancer can help to improve cancer outcomes by ensuring proper medical treatment at the earliest possible stage.

2. Can Cancer be Treated with Early Detection?

Yes, early detection of cancer increases the chances of successful treatment of the disease significantly.

3. What is the Best Method for Early Detection of Cancer?

Screening tests are the best way to detect cancer early.

4. What is the Treatment and Prevention of Cancer?

Treatment of cancer is therapies or medical treatment to cure the disease after it is diagnosed. Prevention, on the other hand, is methods such as lifestyle changes, taking vaccines or medications to prevent cancer and avoiding exposure to carcinogens to prevent the development of cancer.