World Cancer Day 2017: focus on early diagnosis

WHO/Sergey Volkov

The cancer burden continues to grow in the WHO European Region, exerting tremendous physical, emotional and financial strain on individuals, families, communities and health systems. Despite some efforts made in prevention, early detection and treatment, cancer mortality increased by 6.6% between 2000 and 2015 across the Region. However, during the same period, some countries – including Belarus, Czechia, Denmark, Ireland, Israel, Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and the United Kingdom – managed to reduce cancer mortality, illustrating that it is possible. Indeed, mortality rates were reduced by up to 16% in Luxembourg and 11% in Norway and Turkey.

Controlling cancer through prevention, early detection and effective treatment

Investing more in prevention can have a major impact, as several countries have shown. Between 2000 and 2012, when cancer incidence increased by more than 30% in 17 countries in the Region, some other countries that had invested resources in prevention managed to keep cancer incidence under control or even to reduce it.

However, prevention is not the only way to control cancer. Early detection and effective treatment are also crucial. Turkey provides a good example of the positive impact that better management can make: while the country’s cancer incidence increased rapidly between 2000 and 2010, cancer mortality decreased by 16% thanks to earlier diagnosis and better treatment.

Early diagnosis programmes: a rapid and cost-effective way to reduce cancer mortality

On 4 February 2017, World Cancer Day, WHO is publishing a guide on the early detection of cancer, notably through the implementation of early diagnosis programmes.

There are 2 distinct strategies to ensure the early detection of cancer:

  1. early diagnosis to identify symptomatic cancer cases at the earliest possible stage; and
  2. screening to identify cancer before symptoms appear in apparently healthy individuals.

The new WHO guide will help health planners to understand the difference between these strategies, their relevance to particular cancer types, and their system requirements, impacts, costs and consequences in order to implement them effectively. In the European Region there is a tendency to invest in screening before ensuring that early diagnosis is in place and fully effective. The guide explains why this is not a cost-effective approach and how the absence of a solid basis for diagnosis and treatment can seriously impair efforts invested in screening, notably for breast and colorectal cancers.

An effective response to save lives

Delayed cancer diagnosis and an inability to access treatment result in countless lost lives and increased disabilities. Cancer control measures must focus on building comprehensive health systems that prioritize high-impact and cost-sensitive interventions. A cancer death is a tragedy to a family and a community. By developing effective programmes to diagnose and treat cancer early, lives can be saved and the personal, societal and economic costs of cancer care can be reduced.