Whilst we can often successfully treat those that are diagnosed at an early stage, depending on the type of cancer, even the most effective treatments are often not effective when cancer is diagnosed at an advanced stage. For these reasons, great efforts are made to diagnose cancers as early as possible.
There is only so much that can be done to make the public and clinicians aware of the signs and symptoms. To make real progress, we need better tests and to use them in screening programs targeting seemingly healthy people.
Up until now, screening tests have been designed to look for one specific type of cancer at a time. And a significant problem is posed by the unreliability of these tests. For every early detection of cancer, several others receive a false-positive. If we were to have 20 different screening programs (one for each type of cancer), most people would receive a false-positive result once every few years. These false-positive tests cause anxiety, can lead to invasive further testing and are expensive to the NHS.
But there is hope on the horizon. Recent technological advances allow for the detection of tiny fragments of genetic material present in the blood. This, for the first time, offers the possibility of having a single blood test for many different types of cancer. One such test can detect 50 different types of cancer, with varying success, and it only very rarely gives a false positive result. If this test can find cancer early enough, it could revolutionize the way we approach cancer control.
Professor Peter Sasieni explains this ground-breaking development in cancer research.