World Cancer Day message: Early diagnosis means better outcomes and less health spend

WHO highlights need to improve public awareness of cancer symptoms and to encourage people to seek medical care when they arise

 

To mark World Cancer Day today, new guidance has been published by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which aims to improve the chances of survival for people living with cancer by ensuring that health services focus on diagnosing and treating the disease earlier.

Latest figures suggest each year, some 8.8 million people die from cancer, mostly in low- and middle-income countries. Even in states with highly-developed health systems, late diagnosis remains a problem.

But as the WHO notes, strategies to improve early diagnosis can be readily built into health systems at low cost. Early diagnosis enables treatment that is more effective, less complex and less expensive; research shows treatment for cancer patients who have been diagnosed early is two to four times less expensive compared to treatment at more advanced stages.

Early diagnosis differs from screening for cancer. Early diagnosis identifies symptomatic cancer cases at the earliest possible stage compared to screening, which seeks out pre-cancerous lesions in a target population without symptoms.

While improving early diagnosis generally improves outcomes, it is especially beneficial for breast cancer, cervical cancer, bowel tumours and oral cancer. Cancers that are common, that can be diagnosed at early stages from signs and symptoms and for which early treatment is known to improve the outcome, are generally those that benefit most from early diagnosis.

The WHO report advocates a three-pronged approach: ; invest in better-equipping health services so they can conduct early and accurate diagnostic tests; and ensure people living with cancer can access safe and effective treatment without incurring financial hardship.

It also highlights the importance of co-ordinating care so that patients are not lost to follow-up – something the Irish health system has struggled with in the past. Our national cancer control programme will be further strengthened by addressing the latest WHO guidelines.

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