5 Things to Know About Early Cancer Detection

Early detection refers to measures that can be taken to diagnose cancer as early as possible, when the disease is easiest to treat. As researchers discover more about what early stages of cancer look like – under the microscope, in scans, or even on our own bodies – we can learn more about what signs or symptoms to look out for and what other measures we can take to be vigilant about recognizing cancer in its earliest forms.

Methods of early detection can include cancer screening, which means to search for cancerous cells or tissue when no symptoms are present.

Examples of cancer screening include annual mammograms, pap smears, and colonoscopies: procedures recommended to certain populations that can detect early forms of breast, cervical, and colon cancer, respectively. Early detection can also refer to recognizing early symptoms that could potentially develop into cancer, for example, spotting a new mole and having it checked out by a dermatologist to make sure it’s not an early sign of melanoma.

While catching cancer early does not necessarily guarantee a positive prognosis, it can certainly improve the outcomes of some cases. Patients with early forms of brain tumors, breast cancer, cervical cancer, colorectal cancers, prostate cancer and skin cancer are those most likely to experience improved outcomes as a result of early detection.  However, what can be challenging about detecting cancer early is that most methods rely on individual behaviors — that is, it is often an individual responsibility to schedule the mammogram, pap smear, colonoscopy, or dermatologist appointment.

Newer methods of early detection include genetic testing, liquid biopsy tests, and population-science based testing interventions, with the latter referring to targeted outreach to specific populations that may be at higher risk.

Cancer mortality rates have dropped significantly for some cancers over the past two decades, thanks in large part to prevention efforts – such as smoking cessation – and continued advancements in early detection. Scientists and clinicians continue to work to discover more early indicators to improve outcomes for all types of cancer.

Learn more about cancer genetics and prevention from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.