Why is early cancer diagnosis important?

  • Spotting cancer at an early stage saves lives.
  • Diagnosing cancer when it isn’t too large and hasn’t spread means that treatment is more likely to be successful.
  • You know your body best, so if something doesn’t feel quite right talk to your doctor.

How can early cancer diagnosis improve survival?

Cancer that’s diagnosed at an early stage, when it isn’t too large and hasn’t spread, is more likely to be treated successfully.

Spotting cancer at an early stage saves lives, so it is important to tell your doctor as soon as possible if you notice anything that isn’t normal for you. You can find out about common signs and symptoms of cancer on our webpage.

In the UK, national screening programmes can help diagnose cancers at an early stage. Cancer screening is a test that looks for early signs of cancer in apparently healthy people with no symptoms. Cancer screening is not the same as tests used by doctors to diagnose and treat cancer.  

Below are some examples of how spotting cancer early can improve survival.

 

 

Early diagnosis of breast cancer

Almost all women with breast cancer survive their disease for 5 years or more, if diagnosed at the earliest stage. This falls to around 3 in 10 women when breast cancer is diagnosed at the most advanced stage.

There is a breast cancer screening programme in the UK for people without symptoms. Don’t wait for your screening invitation if you’ve spotted something that’s not normal for you. Take charge and speak to your doctor.

Find out more about symptoms of breast cancer and breast cancer diagnosis.

Early diagnosis of bowel cancer

More than 9 in 10 people with bowel cancer survive their disease for 5 years or more, if diagnosed at the earliest stage. This falls to 1 in 10 people when bowel cancer is diagnosed at the most advanced stage.

There is a bowel cancer screening programme in the UK for people without symptoms. Don’t wait for your screening invitation if you’ve spotted something that’s not normal for you. Take charge and speak to your doctor.

Find out more about symptoms of bowel cancer and bowel cancer diagnosis.

Early diagnosis of lung cancer

Around 6 in 10 people with lung cancer survive their disease for 5 years or more, if diagnosed at the earliest stage. This falls to less than 1 in 10 people when lung cancer is diagnosed at the most advanced stage.

Find out more about lung cancer symptoms and lung cancer diagnosis.

 

What can affect how early cancer is diagnosed?

There can be several reasons why cancer might not be diagnosed early, for example:

  • Some possible cancer signs and symptoms might not be obvious, such as feeling tired for no reason, or unexplained pain or aches. You don’t need to know all the signs and symptoms of cancer, but get any changes that are not normal for you checked out.
  • Diagnosis journeys differ, and not all diagnoses are straightforward. Doctors might investigate other possibilities before making a cancer diagnosis. Speak to your doctor again if your symptoms don’t go away or get worse, even if your tests have come back normal or you are waiting to have tests.
  • Worry can put some people off from speaking to a doctor. For example, worries about taking up the doctor's time, or worries about what the doctor might find. But your doctor wants to hear about anything bothering you, and you don't have to approach it alone. You can find support for talking to your doctor and other healthcare professionals on our webpage.
  • It can sometimes take longer to refer patients for tests, or to get an appointment at the hospital. You can find out more about urgent referrals on our webpage.
  • It may be difficult to get an appointment at a convenient time. Your GP surgery can help find you an option that works, including telephone appointments, appointments in extended hours or weekends and online consultations.

When it comes to your body, you know it best. If you notice anything that isn't normal for you, or if something doesn’t feel quite right, take charge and speak to your doctor. In most cases it won’t be cancer – but if it is, finding it early can make a real difference.

 

Office for National Statistics. Cancer survival in England: adult, stage at diagnosis and childhood - patients followed up to 2018. 2019.

National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Suspected cancer: recognition and referral. 2021.

NHS Digital. Cancer survival in England; cancers diagnosed 2015 to 2019, followed up to 2020. 2022.

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