Basic cancer research: why it is essential for the future of cancer therapy

Affiliations.

  • 1 Department of Biological Regulation, Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot 76100, Israel.
  • 2 Cancer Research UK Cambridge Research Institute, Li Ka Shing Centre, Cambridge, UK.
  • PMID: 25295602
  • DOI: 10.1684/bdc.2014.2024

The last decade has witnessed significant progress in cancer understanding and therapy: we can now identify the genetic drivers of individual tumours, and tailor drugs able to specifically intercept the driver mutations. While all agree that personalized cancer medicine is a clear outcome of the resources dedicated to cancer research over the last 50 years, some critics question the necessity for continuous investments in sub-fields other than clinical research and drug development. Herein, scientists from the European Association for Cancer Research (EACR) argue that the new ways to diagnose and treat cancer present important and hitherto unaddressed challenges for fundamental research of cancer. Allocating the resources needed for basic studies will likely fuel the next wave of achievements in the long way to conquer cancer.

Keywords: Cancer.

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What to know about peer-reviewed cancer information and its role in cancer research.

why is it important to research cancer

Christopher Flowers, MD, MS, FASCO, is Chair of the Department of Lymphoma/Myeloma at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and was appointed Division Head  ad interim   of Cancer Medicine in August 2020. He is the 2022 Cancer.Net Associate Editor for Lymphoma . Vicki Keedy, MD, is an Associate Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology/Oncology at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. She is the 2022 Cancer.Net Associate Editor for Sarcoma . Daniel Mulrooney, MD, MS, is an Associate Member in the Division of Cancer Survivorship at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. He is the 2022 Cancer.Net Associate Editor for Pediatric Cancers . Sumanta (Monty) Pal, MD, FASCO, is the co-director of City of Hope's Kidney Cancer Program and is the head of the kidney and bladder cancer disease team at the institution. He is the 2022 Cancer.Net Associate Editor for Genitourinary Cancers . Disclosure information for the authors can be found in their individual biographies linked to above.

Doctors and scientists conduct research studies to find better ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat cancer. When searching for cancer information online, you may come across articles about research studies. However, it can sometimes be difficult to tell whether articles you find online are reliable or potential misinformation . One important way to tell if an article you find online is dependable is if it is “peer reviewed.” Here, we break down what to know about peer-reviewed information and the types of peer-reviewed cancer research you may find when searching online.

What are peer-reviewed articles?

For articles published in scientific journals, “peer reviewed" means that the article has undergone a process in which qualified experts have reviewed it, provided feedback, and the authors have responded to that feedback to improve the scientific quality and integrity of the article.

Articles that have not been peer reviewed have not been reviewed by experts in the field for scientific validity or quality. For example, research studies that are published in non-peer-reviewed journals are not heavily scrutinized and have not been reviewed for the quality of the methods performed in the study or for the integrity of the data reported from the study.

One example of a non-peer-reviewed article is called a “pre-print.” Pre-prints are rapid reports of study results that are often found in the online version of a journal that is published before peer review is performed. Pre-prints allow for rapid distribution of important information. However, the final article for the study may change significantly after it goes through peer review. Other non-peer-reviewed sources can include book chapters, blogs, or medical articles in a magazine.

If you come across an article online that you’re not sure has been peer reviewed, bring it up with your health care team. They can point you toward sources of peer-reviewed research and other cancer information that is helpful and dependable. Learn more about evaluating cancer information online.

Sumanta (Monty) Pal, MD, FASCO

“‘Peer reviewed’ means that the article has undergone a process in which qualified experts have reviewed it, provided feedback, and the authors have responded to that feedback to improve the scientific quality and integrity of the article.” – Sumanta (Monty) Pal, MD, FASCO, co-director of City of Hope's Kidney Cancer Program, head of the kidney and bladder cancer disease team at the institution, and the 2022 Cancer.Net Associate Editor for Genitourinary Cancers

What is peer-reviewed cancer research, and why is it important?

Peer-reviewed cancer research studies are evaluated and critiqued by an independent group of scientific experts in the same field before that research is performed. The purpose of this review is to ensure the scientific merit of the study by asking if the research question being studied is important and based on sound science. Peer review also ensures that the methods used to answer the research question are safe and appropriate. Often, research proposals must go through a rigorous peer review before they receive funding from research organizations.

However, not all research studies go through a peer review prior to the research being performed, particularly if it is not required for the funding of the project. These often are smaller pilot projects or projects that are privately funded. There is a risk that non-peer-reviewed studies may not use reliable research techniques and may not hold as much scientific value, because they do not undergo a formal critique. It is important when evaluating studies to identify whether they are peer reviewed, as peer review is crucial to ensuring scientific integrity. If you are unsure whether a study you have found is peer reviewed, your health care team can help you answer this question.

Vicki Keedy, MD

“Peer review also ensures that the methods used to answer the research question are safe and appropriate. Often, research proposals must go through a rigorous peer review before they receive funding from research organizations.” – Vicki Keedy, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine in the Division of Hematology/Oncology at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center and the 2022 Cancer.Net Associate Editor for Sarcoma

What does "levels of evidence" mean in cancer research?

Cancer research studies are assigned a level of evidence based on how strong the evidence is in a particular study. It is simplest to think about levels of evidence in cancer research like a school report card, with “A” being the highest level of evidence. When the level of evidence is “A,” that means we have the best information to provide clarity about what the right way is to diagnose or treat a given type of cancer.

The other important feature to understand when considering levels of evidence is the experimental design of the study. The best type of experimental design for testing whether one diagnostic or treatment option is better than another is a called a randomized controlled trial. In a randomized controlled trial, participants in the trial are randomly assigned to receive a particular intervention, such as Treatment 1 versus Treatment 2, based on the belief that we do not know which treatment is more likely to benefit patients in general. High-quality randomized controlled trials provide an A-grade level of evidence.

When multiple randomized controlled trials have been done to answer the same research question, then researchers may perform something called a “systematic review” of these trials to combine and provide a summary of all the evidence from the multiple trials. The summary from a systematic review highlights the best available research on a specific topic and can be a way to improve grade A evidence.

Christopher Flowers, MD, MS, FASCO

“It is simplest to think about levels of evidence in cancer research like a school report card, with “A” being the highest level of evidence. When the level of evidence is “A,” that means we have the best information to provide clarity about what the right way is to diagnose or treat a given type of cancer.” – Christopher Flowers, MD, MS, FASCO, Chair of the Department of Lymphoma/Myeloma at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and the 2022 Cancer.Net Associate Editor for Lymphoma

Other forms of studies have lower levels of evidence, including cohort studies, which are when researchers study the event as it occurs, and case-control studies, which is when we know what outcome has occurred for 2 different groups of people and compare the results. Both types of studies would be considered different forms of “grade B” evidence. When we do not have data to provide information on a particular research question, we rely on expert opinion, which would also be a lower level of evidence.

What are the differences between research studies in cell lines, animals, and humans?

Cancer research can be performed on several different sources, including cell lines, animals, or humans.  The choice often depends on the research question being asked and available resources. 

In cell line studies, the cells can be isolated from animals or humans and preserved or grown in culture dishes. These cells may come from different tissue, such as the bone, brain, or muscle of animals or humans. Laboratories can change these cells to grow indefinitely, which are called “immortalized cell lines.” Immortalized cells provide a long-lasting resource for future studies. Cells can also be changed into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which are important to research because under the correct conditions, they can grow into nearly any cell type.

Animals can also be used as models for studying human disease because there are many biologic and genetic similarities between animals and humans. Mice and rats are the most common animals used in research. However, depending on the disease being studied, different animals may be used, ranging from zebrafish to larger animals. Many animals have a shorter lifespan than humans, which allows diseases like cancer to be studied over an entire lifecycle. Animals are used to test how safe and effective new drugs and medical treatments are, and they can also help identify potential side effects. In fact, new drugs must first be tested in animals before human studies can begin. 

While research into new medical treatments often begins in cell lines and animals, studying humans is important to truly understand the effects on the various organ systems in the human body. There is no substitute for the complexity of human behavior and the interactions new treatments can have within our bodies. Studies conducted in humans are watched very closely for safety and may identify new risks and benefits that have not yet been shown in other studies. 

How are research studies in humans conducted?

Medical treatments studied in humans, including those for cancer, are called “clinical trials” and are conducted in 4 phases . A phase I clinical trial is designed to test the safety of a new drug or procedure and identify potential side effects. A phase II clinical trial is focused on determining if the drug or procedure is effective. Phase III clinical trials are conducted in large populations and test the treatment compared to other treatments or the standard of care, which is the best treatment currently known. Phase III clinical trials are required for a drug or procedure to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for regular use. Finally, phase IV clinical trials are conducted after the FDA has approved a new treatment and are used to monitor that treatment over a longer period of time and in diverse populations. Learn more about patient safety in clinical trials.

Daniel Mulrooney, MD, MS

“While research into new medical treatments often begins in cell lines and animals, studying humans is important to truly understand the effects on the various organ systems in the human body. There is no substitute for the complexity of human behavior and the interactions new treatments can have within our bodies.” – Daniel Mulrooney, MD, MS, Associate Member in the Division of Cancer Survivorship at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the 2022 Cancer.Net Associate Editor for Pediatric Cancers

Research studies are an important way for doctors to identify new ways to care for and treat people with cancer, and peer review is an important tool for ensuring that research is safe and reliable. Talk with your doctor if you have any questions about finding trustworthy cancer research studies or other cancer information online.

Category: 

  • Cancer Research

Tags: 

  • expert information
  • clinical trials

Related Resources: 

  • Understanding Cancer Research Study Design and How to Evaluate Results
  • Understanding the Publication and Format of Cancer Research Studies
  • What to Know When Searching for Cancer Information Online: An Expert Perspective
  • About Cancer Clinical Trials

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Cancer researcher Naoise Synnott

Researchers around the world are in a race to find better ways to prevent, detect and treat cancer and ensure that survivors live longer, better lives. But they know that this race is a marathon, not a sprint. Cancer research won’t stop until cancer does.

What is cancer?

The human body consists of trillions of cells, all of which are growing, dividing and dying every day. Our bodies keep normal cells under very strict control. They are told when to grow, when to divide and when to die.

Cells become cancer cells when they get out of control. Cancer cells grow and divide more quickly than normal cells. They also don’t die like normal cells.

With more than 200 different cell types in our bodies and so many ways in which they can change, there are thousands of different cancers.

What is cancer research?

Cancer research can span from cancer prevention to laboratory research that examines new  or improved ways to detect cancer or developing new drugs to fight cancer , from clinical trials to quality-of-life research for survivors.

Through the public's generous support, the Irish Cancer Society funds across the range of research areas in line with our mission to ensure fewer people get cancer and those that do have better outcomes.

With the help of all our supporters we have played a significant role in several breakthroughs in cancer research since 1963. We fund scholarships, fellowships, projects and programmes. Our research has led to hundreds of discoveries. Each of these new findings have been published in international peer reviewed journals, making this knowledge available to researchers worldwide.

While much of our cancer research will benefit the next generation of cancer patients, research is also extremely important for cancer patients being treated in Ireland today. Studies have shown that cancer patients treated at research-intensive hospitals have better outcomes than those treated in hospitals with little or no research activity.

Our vision is that cancer research will be at the heart of cancer care. This will ensure that patients diagnosed with cancer in Ireland will have access to the most cutting edge treatments and the best possible care.

Why do research?

Data from the National Cancer Registry of Ireland, coupled with a growing population, means that this year around 40,000 people in Ireland are expected to be diagnosed with cancer. More people are getting cancer in Ireland and worldwide. It is expected that the number of cancer cases in Ireland will double by 2040. 

Cancer research is crucial to improve the prevention, detection and treatment of these cancers, and ensure that survivors live longer, better quality lives. Research also helps identify the causes of cancer and is pointing the way to improved methods of diagnosis and treatment.  

Research is also important to many patients as taking part in research studies and trials allows them to contribute to improvements for the next generation.

Decades ago, most invasive cancers were fatal.  For example, until the 1960s almost all children diagnosed with leukemia and most men diagnosed with testicular cancer died from their illness, today almost all of these cancers are cured by treatments developed through research. However, we still desperately need improvements in many aspects of cancer. For example, the outcome for some treatments such as pancreatic and ovarian cancer lags far behind that of other forms of the disease. We also need to find ways that treatment can have less consequences for cancer patients and their loved ones.

Cancer researchers in Ireland continue a proud tradition of contributing to global improvements in cancer outcome. For example, researchers in Ireland developed the first widely used radiation-based treatment for cancer – the so-called “Dublin method”, in the early 20th century.

Cancer research areas

Basic laboratory research.

So much of what we know about cancer comes from the lab. Basic research is the foundation on which our understanding of cancer is set. It involves unravelling how normal cells in the body work, and finding out how cancer cells differ from normal cells.

Basic research can involve the study of organisms that are less complex than humans as well as models of cancer such as cells that once came from a tumour that can be grown in the laboratory.

Translational research

After extensive research in the lab to improve our understanding of cancer we can then begin to translate these findings into potential patient-focussed treatments.

For example, if a researcher discovers a characteristic which they believe changes a normal cell into a cancer cell, they can use translational research to try and develop a drug to stop this characteristic from happening.

In modern cancer research this is often the point where new treatments targeted at specific cancers are developed and refined through testing on cells, tissue, or other patient samples.

Clinical trials

Once researchers are happy that they have developed a treatment that could potentially have an effect on cancer cells they need to carry out a clinical trial.

Clinical trials are medical research studies with individuals to test whether different treatments are safe and how well they work. This is the stage where the general public gets an opportunity to become part of the research process. 

Nursing, social sciences and allied health research

Some important areas of research concerns how people actually live with and beyond cancer. This area of research is often called survivorship, but encompasses a multitude of different disciplines, such as social science, nursing, psychology, occupational therapy, physiotherapy, nutrition and diet, speech and language therapy, and many more. 

Researchers and clinical professionals in this area are interested in patient-centred and patient-driven research questions, such as: “Does exercise before surgery improve outcomes after surgery?” or “Which psychological intervention is the most effective for people experiencing cancer?”.  

References * National Cancer Registry. Cancer projections for Ireland 2015 2040. National Cancer Registry. Cork, 2014

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The Royal Marsden and The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) carry out ground-breaking work on the latest cancer treatments and technologies. Together, the two organisations form the only Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) dedicated specifically to cancer and have a long history of driving research that changes NHS care and practice, tackling the inequalities and challenges of cancer.

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We want to hear what specific research is important to you, please add your ideas below.

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Why is cancer on increase in younger people? Diet, fast food, preservatives, something is causing it. Need to research.

Late effects.

I don’t feel like the team are interested in effects of the treatment that may affect me long term.

Brain tumours and brain cancer

Awareness of symptoms & effects, including surgery recovery, needs to be in the public eye so their earliest treatments & recovery (inc. benign) will be their easiest and best for patients & families - and support all NHS teams involved:

Extra monitoring for breast cancer after so recurrence found early. Regular mammos stop at 70, too early, I now stage 4 after 20yrs recurred

Lobular breast cancer.

This type of breast cancer has no specific treatment that addresses its growth pattern, what causes a loss of E-Cadherin? could this be a target for effective therapy ?

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“What’s the point of funding cancer research?”

why is it important to research cancer

27 August 2008

This is a very good question, and one that’s clearly rumbling around the public consciousness at the moment. So here are some very good answers as to why giving to cancer research charities is very definitely a great investment. ‘Treatment’ is not just about drugs Firstly, improving cancer treatment is emphatically not just about developing and testing better cancer drugs. Certainly, drug discovery is a vital part of what we – and others – do. But it’s a huge oversimplification to think that the story begins and ends with drugs.

For a start, cancer treatment almost always involves either radiotherapy or surgery – both areas of intensive research that aren’t so attractive to commercial funders. To this end, we’ve recently made a big investment in a new radiobiology research institute in Oxford .

But cancer also needs to be diagnosed, and treatment needs monitoring – so there are huge efforts underway to improve and speed up cancer diagnosis and to find ways to monitor the success – or failure – of treatment.

For example, almost every week we see a new paper that finds a new potential biomarker to detect cancer, and all of these need to be followed up in larger research studies. (Some examples here , here and here ).

Screening is another important aspect to beating cancer – the earlier you can detect cancer, the greater the chance of a successful outcome. So we’re investing in a number of projects looking at cancer screening , including UKCTOCS – a study to test the benefits of ovarian cancer screening in 200,000 women.

Cancer research is not just about improving treatment and detection Understanding what causes cancer, who gets it, and why, is a huge area of research. For example, we know that our diet is very important in determining our risk of cancer – yet we’re still very much in the dark as to how. Huge studies are going on across the world looking at how diet and other lifestyle choices can affect our risk of the disease. For example, we’re funding the two UK arms of EPIC – the largest study of diet and cancer ever undertaken.

And no consideration of ‘cancer research’ is complete without mentioning the worldwide hunt for new cancer genes. Gene hunters have had notable successes, finding ‘strong’ predisposition gene faults like those in BRCA genes – but now they’re trawling the net wider to find the small genetic variations linked to cancer risk. And this research is time consuming, expensive and slow-paced, yet fundamental to our understanding of who gets cancer and how to treat them. Over the past year or so we’ve seen the discovery of new genes linked to breast , prostate , bowel and lung cancer – and many of these studies were funded by Cancer Research UK.

A lot of science fails But, thinking back to the lab – in its purest form, science is a slow, methodical process of testing theories and finding out which ones work. For every medical breakthrough, for every Herceptin , there were hundreds of blind alleys and failed ideas – that’s the nature of science.

If a researcher could be sure that an experiment would work at the outset, it wouldn’t tell him or her anything new, and would be a waste of time and money. It can be a frustrating, lonely process – in the lab, there’s as much luck as there is judgement. Thankfully, even a ‘failed’ result adds to the sum total of human knowledge – if the failure is noted and communicated, no-one else will make that mistake again.

Science is cumulative Moreover, each scientist’s work builds on the work of their predecessors. No breakthrough, no discovery, no progress, would be possible without the years of research that lays down the groundwork.

In the early stages, much of this groundwork might be viewed as ‘blue skies’ research – not profitable for pharma companies to fund, so it falls into the hands of the research charities or Government-funded scientists. A good case in point here is Herceptin – although much of the later development work was done by Genentech, Cancer Research UK scientists and others around the world put in years of painstaking background research, enabling us to understand the role of the molecule ( HER2/ErbB2 ) targeted by the drug.

Cancer research charities don’t just do research It’s also worth pointing out that the money given to cancer charities goes a lot further than just funding scientists and doctors to do research.

Indeed, without the concerted efforts of several medical research organisations, and others, the UK smoking ban may not have happened – something that will help save thousands of lives every year. Another good example is the introduction of the bowel screening programme – pressure from cancer charities, not to mention a few uncomfortable news headlines , helped to make it a reality.

It’s easy to feel a sense of futility when NICE turns down yet another cancer drug, or when we hear the latest horror stories about the NHS. But in fact charity supporters should feel empowered. For example, more than a million people are regular supporters of Cancer Research UK – and that’s a big voice. We’ve run a number of political campaigns over recent years, including the highly successful Cancer2020 . With the help of our supporters we can really make the Government sit up and listen.

And in some cases, things are changing. We’re starting to see the introduction of what is known as ‘risk sharing’ schemes for expensive drugs. A recent example of this is the agreement reached over the use of the drug Velcade, which is used to treat a type of blood cancer called multiple myeloma.

Here, the Government agreed that they would only give manufacturers money for the drug where patients showed improvement after treatment (in this case measured by a certain level of tumour shrinkage) and not for those who didn’t. Although they’ve not yet been widely adopted, many people think that such schemes could help to provide greater access to pricey drugs for people who will benefit from them. (There’s a pdf file with more information about the Velcade scheme here .)

To sum up Not all cancer research is ‘sexy’. A single discovery can take decades. Sometimes it throws up new questions that, in turn, can take a decade to answer. Cancer’s a complex question, and there are no easy answers. It’s vital that the efforts of medical researchers around the world are supported with continued funding.

And finally, let’s not forget the vital lobbying role that charities, and their supporters, can take to make change happen. As we say in our vision statement – together we will beat cancer.

Henry and Kat

I dont need to know the ins and outs of where CR spend the money, I like everyone else just wait to see results. I’m happy to give every month like I do. Maybe in my lifetime there will be a breakthrough that will save lives. There wasnt the same hopes around when my Mum and Dad died through the disease. Maybe, it will help me in the future should I succumb to the same disease, we just dont know, we just have to believe and keep looking.

John, Deciding which charity to support is a personal decision – after all, only an individual can decide what causes are significant and important to them, and there are so many worthy causes in the world.

Of course we are very grateful that many people choose to support Cancer Research UK. And we are always trying to demonstrate our progress and the impact we are making in beating cancer.

That’s what we’re doing through this blog and through our website – for example, here are some of our achievements through the decades: http://info.cancerresearchuk.org/cancerandresearch/progress/

We are making progress in beating cancer. Long-term (ten year) survival rates have doubled over the past 30 years thanks to improvements in diagnosis, screening and treatment.

For example, breast cancer survival rates are expected to continue to improve significantly – in the 1970s five-year survival was around 50 per cent compared with about 80 per cent these days, and nearly three-quarters of people with the disease survive for 10 years or more.

And bowel cancer survival rates have substantially increased since the 1970s, when just over one in five men and women with the disease survived five years or more. Today, more than a half are expected to survive bowel cancer.

None of this would have been possible without the committed work of thousands of scientists, and Cancer Research UK funding has played a vital role in many of the most important breakthroughs in cancer science and treatment over the years. Our work is almost entirely funded by public donations, which allow us to continue to find new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer to improve survival in the future.

If you would like to find out more about how donations to Cancer Research UK are spent, please spend some time reading the blog, and looking at some of these pages on our website.

Our current research: http://info.cancerresearchuk.org/cancerandresearch/ourcurrentresearch/

Our progress and achievements: http://info.cancerresearchuk.org/cancerandresearch/progress/ Our new five-year strategy: http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-us/whoweare/our-strategy-2009-2014/

Our annual reports and accounts: http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-us/whoweare/ourreportsandaccounts/

Our goals: http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-us/whoweare/ourgoals/

Facts about us: http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-us/whoweare/factsaboutus/

P.S. My life has been influenced by cancer, as my Mum, who I loved, and love, dearly, died of lung cancer, after years of buying the vector,(around 40 fags a day). Her death, and suffering, doesn’t seem to compare much with that inflicted on people, to make this country rich enough, to have an N.H.S.

I’ve asked repeatedly for someone at Cancer Resaerch U.K., to tell me why I should donate anything, or work for any cancer research charity, rather than any other. There are plenty of them, some of them helping foreign victims of British practices of exporting terror, (murder weapons, torture equipment, etc.), corruption, and poverty, generally to create the situatiions, that refugees have to run away from. Then there are the animal and human victims, of research, used to cover up progress in defeating illnesses, like cancer, apparently to peretuate more expensive ways to treat sufferers. . . . . .The list is too long to complete here. I have been told, many times, that it’s my choice, but when I point out, this does not tell me why I should help Cancer Research, rather than others, ( for which I expect to be ignored, if, as I suspect, C R supporters / workers, don’t have an answer, which you should know, is more than a reply). Instead, I keep getting e – mails, thanking me for my interest, which I usually ignore, and now, at last I thought, one which directed me to a relevant page, on a website, where I might find reason to change my attitude. Hmmmm, I’m still looking for an answer to my innocent question, which I innocently posed originally, to a street collector, who seems, to have innocently passed the question on to someone she mistakenly belived to be more knowledgeable than her. I would be content to accept that as proof, that you don’t have an answer, but the box beneath this, which invites me to ask for follow up comments, just might leave me in ignorance of one, if I don’t tick it. I have come to expect nothing more from your people, than irrelevance, but then, there just might be someone who this reaches, who can justify you being given more resources. I have a couple of thousand pounds, in my fighting fund, which you can have, as well as my spare time, which I’m always willing to divert, away from issues I could work for, to make room for something more urgent, or necessary, when the need arises. Go, on then, I’ll take a chance, on ticking that box, not that I have great interest in what you do, but I do have a willingness to develop that interest, if someone there, can simply tell me why anyone should.

Thanks for your comments! Kat

Anybody who has been touched by cancer will understand the importance of research.

Whatever happens; we must never undervalue the benefits gained and the need for ongoing research.

You never really think about the other aspects of cancer research and how important they are. Thanks for reminding me that although important, it’s not just about cancer drugs.

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The Supportive Care Needs of Cancer Patients: a Systematic Review

Madeleine evans webb.

1 UCL Research Department of Epidemiology & Public Health, 1-19 Torrington Place, London, WC1E 6BT UK

Elizabeth Murray

2 Department of Primary Care and Population Health, Upper 3rd Floor, Royal Free Hospital, Rowland Hill Street, London, NW3 2PF UK

Zane William Younger

Henry goodfellow, associated data.

Cancer, and the complex nature of treatment, has a profound impact on lives of patients and their families. Subsequently, cancer patients have a wide range of needs. This study aims to identify and synthesise cancer patients’ views about areas where they need support throughout their care. A systematic  search of the literature from PsycInfo, Embase and Medline databases was conducted, and a narrative. Synthesis of results was carried out using the Corbin & Strauss “3 lines of work” framework. For each line of work, a group of key common needs were identified. For illness-work, the key needs idenitified were; understanding their illness and treatment options, knowing what to expect, communication with healthcare professionals, and staying well. In regards to everyday work, patients wanted to maintain a sense of normalcy and look after their loved ones. For biographical work, patients commonly struggled with the emotion impact of illness and a lack of control over their lives. Spiritual, sexual and financial problems were less universal. For some types of support, demographic factors influenced the level of need reported. While all patients are unique, there are a clear set of issues that are common to a majority of cancer journeys. To improve care, these needs should be prioritised by healthcare practitioners.

Supplementary Information

The online version contains supplementary material available at 10.1007/s13187-020-01941-9.

Introduction

Over 42 million people worldwide are currently living with cancer [ 1 ]. A cancer diagnosis often results in biographical disruption [ 2 ] and distress [ 3 ], sometimes lasting years post-treatment [ 4 , 5 ]. As survival rates continue to increase, more individuals will have to live with the long-term implications of cancer. It is therefore important that the support offered to cancer patients improves to meet this growing demand.

Cancer care pathways are often spread across multiple facilities and delivered by healthcare practitioners (HCP), which make it challenging for a patient’s wider support needs to be met. This has an impact on patient wellbeing [ 6 ] and survival outcomes [ 7 , 8 ]. Many studies focus on the needs of specific patient groups, defined by diagnosis, treatment or demographics, but there is no broad consensus on how common or dissimilar patients’ supportive care needs are across types of cancer and populations. The aim of this study was to synthesise existing data on the support needs of cancer patients across populations. Identifying the common underlying needs of cancer patients, as well as needs that are specific to a patient’s diagnosis or background, will help HCPs provide comprehensive support more efficiently.

Eligibility Criteria

Inclusion criteria: Any patient undergoing treatment for any form of cancer. Patients in remission or recovery were eligible only if they had not been in remission for longer than 5 years, a key milestone in cancer survivorship [ 9 ].

Intervention and Comparator

Patients that had received any form of treatment, be it curative or palliative, could be included. As this review was not assessing the effectiveness of an intervention program, there was no appropriate comparator or control group.

The primary outcome was the identification of any supportive care needs, categorised into emotional, informational, spiritual, social or “other”. Needs could be specifically identified, or could be inferred from reported distress, e.g. patients reporting high levels of loneliness would be categorised as having an emotional need.

Inclusion criteria: Any study design which included collection of primary data, quantitative or qualitative, was eligible for inclusion.

Exclusion criteria: Papers which did not include new primary data (e.g. reviews, meta-analyses, editorials), had not been peer reviewed or were not available in English.

The search strategy was the keywords: [emotional need] or [spiritual need] or [social need] or [emotional need] AND [Neoplasm(s)] either appearing in the title, abstract, subject heading, keyword heading, protocol supplementary concept, rare disease supplementary concept or as a unique identifier.

The search was carried out on PsycInfo, Embase and Medline databases, on 24 April 2018. This selection was based on a review of which databases have the highest recall rate, while also needing to produce a manageable number of results [ 10 ].

Reference lists of included papers were searched for potentially eligible studies.

Study Selection

Titles and abstracts were screened against the inclusion/exclusion criteria, and 10% of papers were also screened by a second author. For any paper that could not be confidently excluded, the full paper was read to determine whether it should be included. There was 100% agreement between the screeners about which papers should be excluded.

Data Extraction and Management

Data were extracted into an extraction form, which was piloted and refined. Data extracted from each paper were as follows: title, year of publication, country of study setting, study design, population studied, methods of data collection and analysis and results. The needs identified in each paper were classified as informational, emotional, spiritual, social or other. For quantitative data, scores or rankings for each need were recorded, along with whether needs differed between sub-groups. For qualitative data, overarching themes, subthemes and illustrative quotes were extracted.

Data Synthesis

Data were analysed using a narrative synthesis method [ 11 ]; this allowed for the synthesis of qualitative and quantitative data and analysis of whether medical or demographic factors shaped patient needs [ 11 , 12 ].

The first step was to group the needs identified in the papers into the categories specified in the primary literature. Seven categories of need were identified in the included papers: emotional, sexual, spiritual, social, financial, daily living, nutritional and informational. The second step was to map these categories onto the Corbin & Strauss “Three lines of work” model of chronic disease management. The model identifies three types of work associated with managing a long-term condition: illness-related work, everyday life work and biographical work [ 13 ]. Within each group, the relative importance and prevalence of all the needs identified in the primary literature were compared to identify which were the most common and urgent.

Our goal was to clarify the commonality of the experience of “cancer”, irrespective of the type of cancer, thus providing an overview of the common and important support needs faced by people with cancer, and hence an understanding of where supportive care is most needed. In instances where there was conflicting evidence in the primary literature on the importance of a specific need, clinical and demographic differences between study populations were reviewed in order to understand the potential reasons for this conflict.

The Corbin & Strauss model was chosen because the categories of need identified in the primary literature clearly corresponded to the types of work in the model (Fig.  2 ). Using the model as a framework to synthesise the data allowed us to compare the relative importance of needs from different categories that fell under the same type of work. The simplicity of the model meant it could be consistently applied to needs that were identified and categorised using a number of different methodologies.

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is 13187_2020_1941_Fig2_HTML.jpg

Illustration of how the different domains of need identified fit into Corbin and Strauss’ 3 lines of work model of managing chronic illness

In total, 2535 papers were identified, and 540 duplicates were removed. After screening against the criteria, 1829 papers were removed, and the remaining 80 papers were read in full (Fig.  1 ). Forty-six papers were found to be eligible for inclusion in this review.

An external file that holds a picture, illustration, etc.
Object name is 13187_2020_1941_Fig1_HTML.jpg

PRISMA flow diagram of the paper identification process

Study Characteristics

Of the 46 studies, 34 were quantitative, 10 were qualitative and two were mixed methods. Study population sizes ranged from 7 to 1059 participants. Fifteen papers focused on patients with a specific type of cancer, with breast and colorectal cancer being the most common. Three studies looked at patients from specific ethnic backgrounds. Eight papers focused on patients receiving a specific form of care/treatment. Three papers focused on children or young adults. Three papers looked at adults within specific age groups. Eleven studies only included patients at a certain stage of cancer or time since diagnosis. Thirty-nine studies took place in high-income countries, 6 were from middle income countries and 1 took place in a low-income country.

Needs of Cancer Patients

Thirty-two papers mentioned informational needs, 31 mentioned emotional needs, 24 mentioned spiritual needs and 19 mentioned social needs. Thirty-five papers mentioned needs in at least one of these other categories: nutritional, sexual, daily living or financial.

The resulting needs identified were grouped according to the different forms of chronic disease “work” defined by the Corbin & Strauss framework (Fig.  2 ).

Illness-Related Work

Illness-related work, defined by Corbin & Strauss, is “the tasks of controlling symptoms; monitoring, preventing crises; carrying out regimens and managing limitations of activity” [ 13 ]. The central goal of illness-related work for patients is to understand their illness and treatment, and subsequently the need for information is consistently reported as a high priority [ 14 – 29 ]. The only paper that did not find a high level of informational need specifically measured unmet need [ 30 ].

Most frequently patients wanted to know what treatment they were receiving and how it worked [ 20 , 26 , 27 , 29 , 31 – 36 ], why that treatment had been selected, its effectiveness and its pros and cons [ 14 , 20 – 24 , 26 , 35 ]. Patients also frequently searched for more specific information about their diagnosis and prognosis [ 15 , 20 – 25 , 29 , 31 , 33 , 34 ].

Patients wanted to know what to expect from their illness and treatment [ 15 , 16 , 31 , 33 – 35 , 37 , 38 ] (Box 1). This included knowing about the chance of a relapse [ 26 ], the length of their hospital stay [ 32 ] and when their life would return to “normal” [ 26 , 31 , 33 , 39 ]. One paper reported that being given “vague” answers by HCPs frustrated patients [ 38 ].

In regard to treatment, patients most often wanted to know what the possible side effects were [ 16 , 18 , 21 , 22 , 25 , 27 , 31 , 33 , 37 , 38 , 40 , 41 ] and how they could manage or relieve them [ 14 , 17 , 19 , 22 – 24 , 26 , 31 , 33 , 35 , 42 , 43 ]. The importance of this information may depend on the stage of the patient’s treatment, as patients receiving follow-up or palliative care placed less importance on symptom management [ 25 , 27 ].

Wanting to minimise the impact of side effects speaks to a commonly reported desire among patients to be as healthy as possible [ 14 , 15 , 18 , 19 , 22 – 24 , 26 – 29 , 33 , 38 – 40 ]. This aim is also seen in the nutritional needs of patients [ 16 , 20 , 33 , 40 , 41 , 44 ]. Rather than receiving generic information about healthy diets, patients wanted more specific advice around foods that could aid recovery or minimise side effects [ 16 , 40 , 41 ]. Nutritional needs had an outsized importance in studies involving Native American patients and colorectal cancer patients [ 16 , 40 ]. For colorectal cancer patients, nutritional needs are likely higher as their cancer directly affects their digestive system. Within the Native American population, there was a strong interest in information about traditional foods, possibly due to culturally specific reasons [ 40 ].

Generally, patients wanted their test results as soon as possible [ 21 , 22 , 24 , 27 , 33 , 43 ] and wanted the meaning of the results explained to them [ 21 , 22 , 26 , 34 , 43 ]. The importance of this information to patients could be due to a desire to have some say in the treatment they are given [ 18 , 33 , 34 , 45 ], although the level of interest in alternative treatments varied significantly [ 14 , 18 , 24 , 40 , 44 ] (Box 2). The only study where information about tests was less important involved newly diagnosed patients [ 18 ].

The final area of illness-related work highlighted by this review was communication. Patients wanted to be able to communicate with their HCPs [ 18 , 27 , 34 , 40 ] but often felt unsure of when or who to direct questions to [ 24 , 26 , 35 , 36 , 38 ]. Having a single HCP who they could talk to about all aspects of treatment was a high priority [ 19 , 21 – 23 , 28 , 43 ]. Less important was the need to talk to a professional counsellor [ 25 , 27 , 36 , 43 ].

Although a general need for information was consistent across all included studies, not all patients wanted a high volume of information. A significant minority of patients only wanted to know essential information or did not want to receive bad news [ 29 , 31 , 46 ]. Age may play a role in this dynamic, as multiple papers reported older people wanted less information [ 14 , 15 , 20 , 22 , 25 , 26 , 31 , 44 ], while only a couple found no relationship [ 28 , 34 ]. Timing could also be a factor, as some patients felt the amount of information received when diagnosis was overwhelming and preferred receiving information as it became relevant [ 34 , 37 , 39 , 41 ].

Everyday Life Work

This area of need encapsulates “the daily round of tasks that helps keep a household going”, which includes the practical tasks involved in managing an illness, along with trying to maintain the structure of life pre-diagnosis [ 13 ]. The most frequently reported social needs were about patients’ concern for their family [ 17 , 20 , 21 , 26 , 39 , 46 – 48 ]. The importance of maintaining relationships with their partner, children or friends were all mentioned [ 15 , 29 , 37 , 42 , 45 , 47 ], although notably not among patients with incurable cancer [ 27 ]. There was no consensus on whether patients wanted to discuss their cancer with loved ones; some papers found this to be highly important, others did not [ 20 , 31 , 36 , 42 , 49 ]. While there were no clear demographic or medical factors connected to this variation, Kent (2013) reported that patients whose existing relationships had been heavily affected by their diagnosis were more likely to want to talk about cancer [ 49 ].

Patients wanted to live a life they consider “normal”, reflected by the importance placed on daily living needs. The most common difficulties patients faced were coping with a lack of energy [ 17 , 19 , 21 , 27 , 28 , 30 , 36 , 38 , 43 ] and wanting to do the things they used to do [ 19 , 21 , 26 , 28 , 31 , 39 ] (Box 3). Patients placed a high value on socialising and leisure time [ 15 , 26 , 32 , 45 ] and reported a fear of being isolated or abandoned [ 16 , 18 , 20 ]. The importance of maintaining a job was influenced by age, with younger patients being more interested in how cancer will affect their career and their employment rights [ 15 , 18 , 20 , 26 , 29 , 33 , 39 , 42 ].

The final practical need identified was financial, though the level of need was highly dependent on location. Patient populations with greater access to healthcare placed lower importance on financial needs [ 25 , 27 , 29 , 30 , 33 ] (Box 4). The needs in these groups related to wanting financial stability and informational support [ 45 , 50 ], with low levels of interest in economic aid [ 34 ]. Patients in countries with more limited access to healthcare reported higher levels of financial stress and reliance on family for monetary support [ 32 , 46 ]. This was true in all US-based studies, apart from one in which the mean income of participants was high [ 18 , 20 , 24 , 28 ]. For these populations, financial concerns included managing bills [ 18 , 24 ], bankruptcy assistance [ 18 ], paying for care [ 20 , 32 , 46 ] and homelessness [ 46 ]. A few financial needs were common across healthcare systems, being able to maintain a basic standard of living [ 27 , 30 , 45 , 46 ] and helping understanding financial systems and resources [ 18 , 25 , 26 , 34 ], though again the level of importance varied.

Biographical Work

Biographical work is defined as “the work involved in defining and maintaining an identity” [ 13 ]. This involves coming to terms with and contextualising a diagnosis within a persons’ identity [ 42 , 45 ]. Patients wanted to be treated as individuals [ 16 , 19 , 21 , 22 , 34 ], be reassured [ 19 , 34 ], have their feelings acknowledged [ 19 , 22 ], be respected [ 34 , 45 ] and have their dignity preserved [ 47 ] (Box 5).

Biographical work includes dealing with the emotional impact of cancer. Feelings of despair or depression were common [ 19 , 21 , 23 , 28 , 30 , 42 , 51 , 52 ], as well as distress and anxiety [ 16 , 21 , 28 , 30 , 35 , 38 , 43 ]. Patients also reported a range of fears including cancer itself [ 17 , 21 , 23 , 31 , 43 , 51 ], their treatment [ 35 , 37 ], dying [ 17 , 19 , 42 , 52 ] and pain [ 27 ]. Physical changes also negatively affected patients’ sense of self [ 26 , 27 , 29 , 30 , 38 , 42 , 45 – 47 ]. Consequently, the need for relaxation and stress management was high [ 23 , 24 , 33 , 48 , 52 ].

Patients struggled to deal with the uncertainty [ 15 , 17 , 19 , 28 , 30 , 42 , 43 , 46 , 51 ] and expressed a desire for more control [ 17 , 19 – 21 , 27 , 28 , 30 , 42 , 43 , 53 ]. To cope, patients placed a lot of importance on receiving support from loved ones [ 14 , 18 , 32 , 35 , 36 , 42 , 51 ]. However, this directly conflicted with their fear of being a burden and a perceived pressure to “stay strong” [ 20 , 27 , 37 , 45 , 46 , 51 , 53 ] (Box 6). Other patients were identified as a source of support for some [ 18 , 34 , 37 , 49 , 52 ], but others, especially those who were receiving follow-up or palliative care, were less interested in talking to other patients [ 25 , 35 , 45 , 47 ]. This aligns with a reported need among terminal cancer patients to discuss things other than illness [ 54 ].

Sexuality is another part of identity that can be impacted by cancer. Patients wanted to know how cancer would impact their sex drive, sexuality [ 14 , 17 , 20 , 26 , 29 ] and their intimate relationships [ 14 , 17 , 30 , 31 ] but often felt uncomfortable discussing these needs with their HCPs [ 14 , 18 , 20 , 26 ] (Box 7). When ranked alongside other needs, sexuality was reported to be of lesser importance to most patients [ 17 , 19 , 21 , 22 , 35 , 42 , 43 ], apart from prostate cancer patients, who reported the impact on their sex drive and sexual activity as some of the most significant changes they faced [ 14 , 30 , 38 ] (Box 7). Higher sexuality-related needs were also identified in patients with colorectal and breast cancer, although not at the same level [ 22 , 30 ]. Of the papers that looked, five out of the six studies found a relationship between age and importance of sexual identity, with younger patients having a greater need for information on sex [ 17 , 22 , 26 , 31 ] and individuals over 40 wanting more guidance on fertility [ 18 ]. One study involving younger patients did report limited interest in sexuality; however, the majority of patients were under 18 and therefore were less likely to be sexually active [ 42 ].

Much like with sexual identity, patients’ spiritual needs were not highly important when ranked alongside other domains [ 23 , 24 , 27 , 28 , 33 , 34 , 40 , 45 ], but papers that focused solely on spirituality reported widespread need [ 47 , 48 , 52 , 54 – 58 ]. There was no consensus on the importance of accessing religious resources, some papers reported a strong need for religious support [ 23 , 32 , 45 , 55 , 56 , 59 ], but more papers reported low levels of interest [ 24 , 28 , 33 , 48 , 51 , 52 , 54 , 57 , 60 ]. In line with this, the most commonly reported spiritual needs were not explicitly religious. This included maintaining a sense of calm [ 45 – 48 , 52 , 53 , 55 , 56 , 58 , 60 ], staying positive or hopeful [ 23 , 24 , 32 , 45 , 47 , 48 , 57 – 59 ] and being able to appreciate or find meaning in life [ 32 , 45 , 47 , 48 , 55 – 57 , 59 , 60 ]. Generally, there was little reported interest in discussing death or dying [ 23 , 24 , 27 , 42 , 45 , 48 , 52 , 60 ] or making sense of why this happened [ 34 , 55 – 57 ]. Much like the importance of family relationships in everyday work, being with loved ones was important for patients’ spiritual wellbeing [ 47 , 51 , 53 – 58 , 60 ]. However, some patients reported that being part of a religious community gave them similar support [ 46 , 51 , 53 , 55 , 60 ].

The most commonly reported religious need for patients was to pray or be prayed for [ 32 , 46 , 48 , 55 – 57 , 59 ]. The fact that prayer was also important for non-religious participants suggests that it may be seen as a spiritual practice for some patients. A small number of papers reported that having a relationship with God was important to patients [ 15 , 48 , 56 , 57 , 59 ], with some patients viewing God as a saviour from illness [ 40 , 46 , 59 ], while others felt that God caused their illness as punishment or as a test of faith [ 46 , 47 , 51 ] (Box 8).

Cultural factors may also influence spiritual needs. The afterlife was found to be an important concern for some patients [ 52 , 53 , 55 ], but not if their culture had little belief in the concept [ 47 ]. In the same way, having a legacy was a key need in one paper due to the importance of continuity after death in that culture [ 53 ].

This is the first review to synthesise data about cancer patients’ supportive needs across all populations and cancer types. There was remarkable consistency in the needs identified, and these were well explained by the Corbin & Strauss model of managing a chronic condition [ 13 ]. Almost all studies confirmed patients’ need for high-quality, comprehensible and timely information about their illness, treatments and how best to manage their symptoms. Such information was necessary for patients to undertake illness-related, everyday living and biographical work. In addition, patients needed support in dealing with emotional issues, including existential uncertainty, changing relationships with friends and family and practical support with everyday tasks.

Previous Literature

This review confirms the findings of previous reviews focused on specific types of need or specific populations. The most common needs identified as illness-related work in this study correspond to key informational needs highlighted in previous reviews [ 61 , 62 ]. The spiritual needs discussed have also been found to be key in improving psycho-spiritual wellbeing in other research [ 63 ]. While our review did not assess the ability of current care models to meet these needs, it is noteworthy that the key needs we identified have been found to frequently go unmet in other research [ 64 , 65 ].

Strengths and Limitations

The main strength of this study is its inclusive nature, looking across all populations and all types of cancer. This, combined with the theoretical underpinning and use of the Corbin & Strauss model, provides reassurance about the overall transferability of these findings to other clinical populations.

The main limitation pertains to the scope of the primary literature, with most of the studies coming from high-income countries, and only 7 papers from low- or middle-income countries. While the nature of patients’ financial needs were clearly dependent on country, setting may also influence other needs in less direct ways, limiting how universal the findings are. Additionally, the majority of studies used opportunistic sampling so may not accurately capture the needs of the general cancer population. Most included studies were not longitudinal and therefore could not analyse how patients’ concerns changed over time. Finally, potentially relevant demographic information was not always collected. For example, only one of the papers that examined sexuality collected information about sexual orientation, and only a couple of studies that measured financial need recorded socioeconomic status.

Conclusions

This review highlights a number of underlying issues that affect cancer patients. These findings are consistent with the previous literature and fit well with multiple chronic illness frameworks, which suggests that they are robust enough to inform best practice. The most common needs identified support the argument for empowering people with cancer through a patient-centred form of care.

Priorities for practice should be to ensure patients understand their illness and what they can expect throughout their treatment pathway. Supportive care should work to enable patients to live a life they recognise as “normal” and help them maintain their closest relationships. HCPs should ensure that patients always feel that they are being treated as individuals and know who to go to when they have questions. These key needs should be addressed as a first step to provide a strong basis of care before providing more individualised support.

Further research should focus on how to ensure these needs are addressed effectively. Evaluation of supportive care interventions should remain focused on the experiences of patients to allow them to have a voice in their care. Additional research on when different needs arise over the disease progression would help ensure that resources are provided only when needed.

(DOCX 58 kb)

(DOCX 118 kb)

Compliance with Ethical Standards

This work was part-funded by the MacMillan Cancer Support Research Grant number 6488115​. Elizabeth Murray receives funding from the NIHR School for Primary Care Research and the NIHR Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care North Thames. Henry Goodfellow is funded through an NIHR Academic Clinical Fellowship. Jamie Ross is funded by an NIHR School for Primary Care Research fellowship.

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Contributor Information

Madeleine Evans Webb, Email: [email protected] .

Elizabeth Murray, Email: [email protected] .

Zane William Younger, Email: moc.liamg@regnuoywenaz .

Henry Goodfellow, Email: [email protected] .

Jamie Ross, Email: [email protected] .

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  • 13 March 2024

Why are so many young people getting cancer? What the data say

  • Heidi Ledford

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Of the many young people whom Cathy Eng has treated for cancer, the person who stood out the most was a young woman with a 65-year-old’s disease. The 16-year-old had flown from China to Texas to receive treatment for a gastrointestinal cancer that typically occurs in older adults. Her parents had sold their house to fund her care, but it was already too late. “She had such advanced disease, there was not much that I could do,” says Eng, now an oncologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.

Eng specializes in adult cancers. And although the teenager, who she saw about a decade ago, was Eng’s youngest patient, she was hardly the only one to seem too young and healthy for the kind of cancer that she had.

Thousands of miles away, in Mumbai, India, surgeon George Barreto had been noticing the same thing. The observations quickly became personal, he says. Friends and family members were also developing improbable forms of cancer . “And then I made a mistake people should never do,” says Barreto, now at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. “I promised them I would get to the bottom of this.”

why is it important to research cancer

Almost half of cancer deaths are preventable

It took years to make headway on that promise, as oncologists such as Barreto and Eng gathered hard data. Statistics from around the world are now clear: the rates of more than a dozen cancers are increasing among adults under the age of 50. This rise varies from country to country and cancer to cancer , but models based on global data predict that the number of early-onset cancer cases will increase by around 30% between 2019 and 2030 1 . In the United States, colorectal cancer — which typically strikes men in their mid-60s or older — has become the leading cause of cancer death among men under 50 2 . In young women, it has become the second leading cause of cancer death.

As calls mount for better screening, awareness and treatments , investigators are scrambling to explain why rates are increasing. The most likely contributors — such as rising rates of obesity and early-cancer screening — do not fully account for the increase. Some are searching for answers in the gut microbiome or in the genomes of tumours themselves. But many think that the answers are still buried in studies that have tracked the lives and health of children born half a century ago. “If it had been a single smoking gun, our studies would have at least pointed to one factor,” says Sonia Kupfer, a gastroenterologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois. “But it doesn’t seem to be that — it seems to be a combination of many different factors.”

On the increase

In some countries, including the United States, deaths owing to cancer are declining thanks to increased screening, decreasing rates of smoking and new treatment options. Globally, however, cancer is on the rise (see ‘Rising rates’). Early-onset cancers — often defined as those that occur in adults under the age of 50 — still account for only a fraction of the total cases, but the incidence rate has been growing. This rise, coupled with an increase in global population, means that the number of deaths from early-onset cancers has risen by nearly 28% between 1990 and 2019 worldwide. Models also suggest that mortality could climb 1 .

Rising rates. Two lines charts showing incidence and death rates of early-onset cancer.

Source: Ref. 1

Often, these early-onset cancers affect the digestive system, with some of the sharpest increases in rates of colorectal, pancreatic and stomach cancer. Globally, colorectal cancer is one of the most common cancers and tends to draw the most attention. But others — including breast and prostate cancers — are also on the rise.

In the United States, where data on cancer incidence is particularly rigorous, uterine cancer has increased by 2% each year since the mid-1990s among adults younger than 50 2 . Early-onset breast cancer increased by 3.8% per year between 2016 and 2019 3 .

The rate of cancer among young adults in the United States has increased faster in women than in men, and in Hispanic people faster than in non-Hispanic white people. Colorectal cancer rates in young people are rising faster in American Indian and Alaska Native people than they are in white people (see ‘Health disparities’). And Black people with early onset colorectal cancer are more likely to be diagnosed younger and at a more advanced stage than are white people. “It is likely that social determinants of health are playing a role in early-onset cancer disparities,” says Kupfer. Such determinants include access to healthy foods, lifestyle factors and systemic racism .

Health disparities. Line chart showing how incidence of colorectal cancer has increased among indigenous people.

Source: Ref. 4

Cancer’s shift to younger demographics has driven a push for earlier screening. Advocates have been promoting events targeted at the under 50s. And high-profile cases — such as the 2020 death of actor Chadwick Boseman from colon cancer at the age of 43 — have helped to raise awareness. In 2018, the American Cancer Society urged people to be screened for colorectal cancer starting at age 45, rather than the previous recommendation of 50.

In Alaska, health leaders serving Alaska Native people have been recommending even earlier screening — at age 40 — since 2013. But the barriers to screening are high; many communities are inaccessible by road, and some people have to charter a plane to reach a facility in which they can have a colonoscopy. “If the weather’s bad, you could be there a week,” says Diana Redwood, an epidemiologist at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium in Anchorage.

These efforts have paid off to some extent: screening rates in the community have more than doubled over the past three decades, and now exceed those of state residents who are not Alaska Natives. But mortality from colorectal cancer has not budged, says Redwood. Although colorectal cancer rates are falling in people over 50 years old, the age group that is still most likely to be screened, the rates in younger Alaska Native people are climbing by 5.2% each year 4 .

Genetic clues

The prominence of gastrointestinal cancers and the coincidence with dietary changes in many countries point to the rising rates of obesity and diets rich in processed foods as likely culprits in contributing to rising case rates. But statistical analyses suggest that these factors are not enough to explain the full picture, says Daniel Huang, a hepatologist at the National University of Singapore. “Many have hypothesized that things like obesity and alcohol consumption might explain some of our findings,” he says. “But it looks like you need a deeper dive into the data.”

Those analyses match the anecdotal experiences that clinicians described to Nature : often, the young people they treat were fit and seemingly healthy, with few cancer risk factors. One 32-year-old woman that Eng treated was preparing for a marathon. Previous physicians had dismissed the blood in her stool as irritable bowel syndrome caused by intense training. “She was healthy as can be,” says Eng. “If you looked at her, you would have no idea that more than half of her liver was tumour.”

why is it important to research cancer

US cancer deaths are falling — but not fast enough

Prominent cancer-research funders, including the US National Cancer Institute and Cancer Research UK, have supported programmes to find other contributors to early-onset cancer. One approach has been to look for genetic clues in early-onset tumours that might set them apart from tumours in older adults. Pathologist Shuji Ogino at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, and his colleagues have found some possible characteristics of aggressive tumours in early-onset cancers. For example, aggressive tumours are sometimes particularly adept at suppressing the body’s immune responses to cancer, and Ogino’s team has found signs of a muted immune response to some early-onset tumours 5 .

But these differences are subtle, he says, and researchers have yet to find a clear demarcation between early-onset and later-onset cancers. “It’s not dichotomous, but more like a continuum,” he says.

Researchers have also looked at the microorganisms that reside in the human body. Disruptions in microbiome composition, such as those caused by dietary changes or antibiotics, have been linked to inflammation and increased risk of several diseases, including some forms of cancer. Whether there is a link between the microbiome and early-onset cancers is still in question: results so far are still preliminary and it’s difficult to gather long-term data, says Christopher Lieu, an oncologist at the University of Colorado Cancer Center in Aurora. “The list of things that impact the microbiome is so extensive,” he says. “You’re asking people to recall what they ate as kids, and I can barely remember what I ate for breakfast.”

Looking to the past

But increasing the size of studies could help. Eng is developing a project to look at possible correlations between microbiome composition and the onset of cancer at a young age, and she plans to combine her data with those from collaborators in Africa, Europe and South America. Because the number of early-onset cancer cases is still relatively small at any one centre, this kind of international coordination is important to give statistical analyses more power, says Kimmie Ng, founding director of the Young-Onset Colorectal Cancer Center at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

Another approach is to scrutinize the differences between countries. For example, Japan and South Korea are located near one another and are similar economically. But early-onset colorectal cancer is increasing at a faster rate in South Korea than it is in Japan, says Tomotaka Ugai, a cancer epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School. Ugai and his collaborators hope to determine why.

why is it important to research cancer

How gut microbes are joining the fight against cancer

But data are scarce in some countries. In South Africa, cancer data are collected only from the 16% of the population that has medical insurance, says Boitumelo Ramasodi, regional director for Southern Africa at the Global Colon Cancer Association, a non-profit organization in Washington DC. Those who do not have insurance are not counted. And families rarely keep records of who has died of cancer, she says. For many Black people in the country, cancer is considered a white person’s disease; Ramasodi initially struggled to make sense of her own diagnosis of colorectal cancer at the age of 44. “Black people don’t get cancer,” she thought at the time. “I’m young, I’m Black, why do I have cancer?”

Ultimately, researchers will also have to look back in time for clues to understand rising early-onset cancers, says epidemiologist Barbara Cohn at the Public Health Institute in Oakland, California. Research has shown that cancers can arise many years after an exposure to a carcinogen, such as asbestos or cigarette smoke. “If the latent period is decades, then where do you look?” she says. “We believe that you need to look as early as possible in life to understand this.”

To do that, researchers will need 40–60 years of data, collected from thousands of people — enough to capture a sufficient number of early-onset cancers. Cohn directs an unusual repository of data and blood samples that have been collected from about 20,000 expectant mothers during pregnancy since 1959. Researchers have followed many of the original participants, and their children, since then.

Cohn and Caitlin Murphy, an epidemiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, have already tried combing through the data to look for ties to early-onset cancers, and have found a possible association between early colorectal cancer and prenatal exposure to a particular synthetic form of progesterone, sometimes taken to prevent premature labour 6 . But the study must be repeated in other cohorts for investigators to be sure.

More informed

Finding studies that follow cohorts from the prenatal stage to adulthood is a challenge. The ideal study would enrol thousands of expectant mothers in several countries, collect data and samples of blood, saliva and urine, and then track them for decades, says Ogino. A team funded by Cancer Research UK, the US National Cancer Institute and others will analyse data from the United States, Mexico and several European countries, to look for environmental exposures and other possible influences on early-onset cancer risk. Murphy and Cohn also hope to incorporate data collected from fathers and are working with collaborators to analyse blood samples in search of more chemicals that offspring might have encountered in the womb.

Murphy expects the results to be complicated. “At first, I really believed that there was something unique about early-onset colorectal cancers compared to older adults, and a risk factor out there that explains everything,” she says. “The more time I’ve spent, the more it seems clear that there’s not just one particular thing, it’s a bunch of risk factors.”

why is it important to research cancer

Cruel fusion: What a young man’s death means for childhood cancer

For now, it’s important for physicians to share their data on early-onset cancers and to follow their patients even after they complete their therapy, to learn more about how best to treat them, says Irit Ben-Aharon, an oncologist at the Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa, Israel. Cancer treatment in young people can be fraught: some cancer drugs can cause cardiovascular problems or even secondary cancers years after treatment — a risk that becomes more concerning in a young person, she says.

Young adults might also be pregnant at the time of diagnosis, or more concerned about the impact of cancer drugs on their fertility than are people who are past their reproductive years. And they are less likely to be retired, and more likely to be concerned about whether their cancer treatment will cause long-term cognitive damage that could hinder their ability to work.

When Candace Henley was diagnosed with colorectal cancer at the age of 35, she was a single mother raising five children. The aggressive surgery she received rendered her unable to continue in her job as a bus driver, and the family was soon homeless. “I didn’t know what questions to ask and so the decisions around treatment were made for me,” says Henley, who went on to found The Blue Hat Foundation for Colorectal Cancer Awareness in Chicago, Illinois. “No one unfortunately considered what my needs were at home.”

In the years since Eng first noticed how young her patients were, certain things have changed. Some advocacy groups have begun targeting their information campaigns at younger audiences. People with early-onset cancers are more informed now and seek out second opinions when physicians dismiss their symptoms, Eng says. This could mean that physicians will more often catch early-onset cancers before they have spread and become more difficult to treat.

But Barreto still doesn’t have all the answers he promised. He wants to study the impact of prenatal stresses, such as exposure to alcohol and cigarette smoke or malnourishment, on early-cancer risk. He’s contacted scientists around the world, but no biobanking projects contain the data and samples that he requires.

If all of the data he and others need aren’t available now, it’s understandable, he says. “We never saw this coming. But in 20 years if we don’t have databases to record this, it’s our failure. It’s negligence.”

Nature 627 , 258-260 (2024)

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-024-00720-6

Zhao, J. et al. BMJ Oncol. 2 , e000049 (2023).

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Siegel, R. L, Giaquinto, A. N. & Jemal, A. CA Cancer J. Clin. 74 , 12–49 (2024).

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Ugai, T. et al. Cancer Immunol. Immunother. 71 , 933–942 (2022).

Murphy, C. C., Cirillo, P. M., Krigbaum, N. Y. & Cohn, B. J . Endocr. Soc. 5 , A496–A497 (2021).

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The Importance of Understanding Cancer

{image_1}By  Matthew T. Gall, MD, MS,  Medical Oncologist and Hematologist

Everyone has heard of cancer, and most people know someone who has or has had the disease.  Still, though, many people know little about the different types of cancer, or what they should do to help prevent it. 

Cancer is actually a group of more than 100 different diseases characterized by the uncontrolled, abnormal growth of cells.  It is named according to the area of the body in which it starts.  For example, colorectal cancer begins in the lining of the colon or rectum. Even if its spreads beyond that area, it is still called colorectal cancer because that’s where it began.

Just a few decades ago, little was known about cancer, and when someone was diagnosed with the disease, their chance for survival was slim. Today, however, we know much more including how to diagnose it earlier, treat it more effectively and, most importantly, help prevent it from occurring in the first place. 

As an oncologist, I have seen first hand the devastating effect cancer can have on individuals and families. I have also seen first hand some of the amazing progress that has been made through the hard work and dedication of hundreds of researchers, scientists, pharmacologists, oncologists and other healthcare providers as they search for new and better drug therapies and treatment techniques. I am fortunate to be able to participate in clinical trials in the Southwest Twin Cities Metro that have helped many patients and hold promise to help many more. 

Every day I am reminded of the fact that we need to continue to educate people in our community about cancer. For example, as we recognize Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month this March, approximately 50,310 people in the United States are estimated to lose their lives from this disease this year. They shouldn’t have to. While we don’t know exactly what causes it, we do know that colorectal cancer is treatable, especially if caught early.

One of the most important actions men and women in their late forties can take is to speak with their healthcare provider about getting screened for colorectal cancer. Screening, which should begin at age 50 for people of average risk for the disease, can detect the growth of polyps, or grape-like growths in the lining of the colon or rectum that sometimes become cancerous. When these growths are detected, they can be removed, which can prevent cancer from developing. 

Even if cancer is detected, today, there are several advancements in surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy that give physicians and their patients with colorectal cancer options for successfully treating the disease. In fact, nine out of 10 people whose colorectal cancer is found and treated at an early stage (i.e. Stage 1), before it has spread, can survive the disease and be cured usually with surgery alone. 

As we increase our knowledge of cancer through extensive laboratory research and detailed clinical trials while continuing to make great strides in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of cancers, such as colorectal cancer, we need to remember that one of the most basic keys in winning this battle is in educating people about the disease. By knowing and understanding the basics about cancer and following the recommended guidelines for screening, men and women can help reduce the number of cases and increase survival rates by allowing treatment to begin earlier. 

Dr. Matthew Gall practices medical oncology and hematology at our Burnsville Clinic (952-892-7190) and our new Chaska location (952-361-5800).

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Cancer often requires more than one treatment − an oncologist explains why some patients like Kate Middleton receive both chemotherapy and surgery

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When Kate Middleton, the princess of Wales, announced in March 2024 that she was receiving “preventive chemotherapy” following abdominal surgery, many wondered what that entails. Formally known as adjuvant therapy, administering chemotherapy or other treatments after surgery is a common approach to treating certain types of cancer and is not necessarily intended to prevent cancer.

Oncologist Alexander Olawaiye of the University of Pittsburgh explains what factors doctors take into account when devising a cancer treatment plan.

Why are some cancers treated with surgery but not others?

There are many types of cancer treatment , including surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, immunotherapy and hormonal therapy, among others. Sometimes doctors combine multiple types of treatment. Which is the best treatment approach depends on which organ the tumor originated from and how much the tumor has spread at the time of diagnosis.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of cancers : solid tumors – or visible tumors that can be seen by the naked eye or through imaging – and liquid tumors, such as blood cancers. The primary treatment for solid cancers is surgery to physically remove the tumor, with the goal of getting rid of all tissues involved with the tumor.

For example, in ovarian cancer , surgery often includes removing the ovaries, fallopian tubes and the uterus, along with any visible cancer tissue in the rest of the belly. Sometimes this requires removing the spleen or part of the small intestine or liver.

Close-up of arm with IV line placed, resting on chair

For skin cancers such as melanoma , surgery involves removing both the tumor and a good margin of normal-looking skin with it to capture any remaining cancer cells that may not be visible in the surrounding healthy skin. Likewise, a surgeon may also remove nearby lymph nodes.

When solid cancer is diagnosed early, the success of treatment following surgery is typically high. For example, an estimated 91% of cervical cancer patients who are diagnosed early are still alive at least five years after diagnosis. Endometrial cancer patients who are diagnosed early have an estimated five-year survival rate of 95% .

Why do some cancers recur?

Despite surgical removal, many tumors come back. Researchers don’t fully understand why cancers recur, but there are certain red flags that indicate the potential for recurrence.

One is how different the cancer cells look compared with healthy cells. The more different, the more aggressive the tumor. When a tumor is more aggressive, it’s more likely to invade neighboring tissues and spread to other parts of the body.

Another is the extent the cancer has spread at the time of diagnosis. This is what determines the stage of the cancer. For example, stage 1 cancer refers to a tumor that is confined to the organ it originally developed from. Stage 4 cancer refers to a tumor that has spread far from its origins to grow on other organs. The higher the stage, the higher the risk for a worse outcome.

A third factor is the organ where the cancer first originated. For instance, pancreatic cancers tend to be fatal even when diagnosed early because these tumors don’t respond well to therapy. Ovarian cancer can have symptoms that are difficult to recognize , leading to late diagnoses. On the other hand, breast cancer and thyroid cancer tend to be less aggressive for longer periods of time, even when diagnosed at an advanced stage.

What is adjuvant and neoadjuvant therapy?

For patients with tumors that can be surgically removed, they often also receive chemotherapy or radiotherapy before or after the procedure . Doctors prescribe this additional, or adjuvant, treatment depending on the patient’s risk of recurrence.

Recurrence typically happens when cancer cells escape from the tumor prior to or during surgical removal. Adjuvant chemotherapy or radiation after the procedure is aimed at killing these cells so they don’t settle down and grow somewhere else in the body later on.

In some cases, surgical removal is not feasible or not advisable. This could be because the cancer has spread so much that completely cutting it out is impossible or the risk of complications or disability from the surgery is high.

For example, primary surgery often isn’t a good option for ovarian cancer, since most patients are diagnosed in advanced stages; complete surgical removal, even if possible, may involve removing important organs such as the rectum and colon. This can lead to the need for a colostomy or ileostomy, where stool is passed directly from the large or small intestine to a bag outside the belly. Surgical removal of breast cancer may mean losing the affected breast.

Team of surgeons operating on a patient

The risk of unwanted side effects from surgical removal can be reduced through neoadjuvant therapy, or administering chemotherapy or radiation before the procedure to shrink the tumor and reduce the amount of surgery required. Studies have shown that neoadjuvant therapy can help ovarian cancer patients avoid colostomies after surgery and allow breast cancer patients to opt for a procedure that conserves their breast.

Neoadjuvant or adjuvant treatment can include chemotherapy, immunotherapy, hormonal therapy, radiation therapy or a combination of these treatments. Further advances in research will offer doctors and patients even more approaches to effectively treat cancer.

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Cancer Biology Research

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The Importance of Cancer Biology Research

Research on the biology of cancer starts with the simplest of questions: What is—and isn’t—normal? To understand how cancer develops and progresses, researchers first need to investigate the biological differences between normal cells and cancer cells. This work focuses on the mechanisms that underlie fundamental processes such as cell growth, the transformation of normal cells to cancer cells, and the spread ( metastasis ) of cancer cells.

Virtually all major advances against cancer originated with discoveries in basic science . Basic research can reveal new ideas about the causes of cancer and how it develops, progresses, and responds to therapy.

Knowledge gained from such studies deepens our understanding of cancer and produces insights that could lead to new clinical interventions. For example, studies of cell signaling pathways  in normal cells and cancer cells have contributed greatly to our knowledge about the disease, revealing molecular alterations that are shared among different types of cancer and pointing to possible treatment strategies.

Decades of basic research in cancer biology have created a broad base of knowledge that has been critical to progress against the disease.

Selected NCI Activities in Cancer Biology Research

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NCI supports a broad variety of research that aligns with the goals of the National Cancer Plan. Read about the plan and explore each goal.

Federal funding for cancer biology is essential because this area of research receives relatively little funding from entities that are driven by profit. NCI supports and directs cancer biology research through a variety of programs and approaches. For example:

  • The Metastasis Research Network (MetNet) supports research to improve our understanding of how cancer spreads. Cancer metastasis is a complex, dynamic, nonlinear process. The network supports several specialized centers working collaboratively on multidisciplinary projects focused on several themes of the metastatic process, including mechanisms of early dissemination, cellular and physical microenvironment crosstalk, dormancy, and mechanisms of responses to therapy by metastatic cells.
  • The Translational and Basic Science Research in Early Lesions (TBEL) Program is advancing the understanding of the mechanisms driving, or restraining, the development of precancers and early cancers, as well as informing the development of precision prevention approaches. The program supports multidisciplinary research centers that are integrating basic and translational research to investigate the interactions of an early lesion, its microenvironment, and host factors as “co-organizers” of tumor initiation and the development of cancer.
  • The Human Tumor Atlas Network is constructing 3-dimensional atlases of the cellular, morphological, and molecular features of human cancers as they evolve from precancerous lesions to advanced disease. The atlases, which represent a diverse patient population, will also be used to study how tumors respond to treatment and develop resistance to drugs.
  • The Cancer Tissue Engineering Collaborative (TEC) supports the development and characterization of state-of-the-art biomimetic tissue-engineered technologies for cancer research. This program advances innovative, well-characterized in vitro and ex vivo systems available for cancer research, expands the breadth of these systems to several cancer types, and promotes investigations of cancer with tissue-engineered systems.

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Each year, NCI prepares a professional judgment budget to lead progress against cancer.

  • The consortium of tumor glycomics laboratories and their research partners that make up the Alliance of Glycobiologists for Cancer Research are investigating the cancer-related dynamics of complex carbohydrates. The alliance, which NCI sponsors with the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, aims to study the structure and function of glycans in relation to cancer.
  • The NCI RNA Biology Initiative facilitates the exchange of information and expertise among investigator studying the structure, function, and biological roles of RNA for the purpose of developing new cancer diagnostics and therapies.
  • NCI’s Centers of Excellence bring together the institute’s intramural researchers to collaborate on new projects and initiatives in various areas of cancer biology, including Chromosome Biology and Genitourinary Malignancies .

Recent Research Findings in Cancer Biology

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why is it important to research cancer

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.

infographic_5y_survival_by_stage_lung_bowel_breast_screen_high_res.png

Graphic showing the proportion of people that survive different cancer types for at least 5 years, when diagnosed at the earliest stage (stage 1) compared to at the latest stage (stage 4).

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.

Key references

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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Patient Information Forum

  • Nebraska Medicine
  • Current Students
  • Faculty & Staff

The Importance of Cancer Screenings

  • Written by Aurelie Villard
  • Published Mar 28, 2024

In his latest “Health Care Heart to Heart” podcast, now streaming, UNMC Chancellor Jeffrey P. Gold, MD, speaks with Shinobu Watanabe-Galloway, PhD, professor, and the Tim Hawk’s Chair in Cancer Prevention and Population Science at the UNMC College of Public Health, as well as the associate director of community engagement for the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center.

As Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month ends, Drs. Gold and Watanbe-Galloway discuss the importance of screening, the impact of the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center and the impact of UNMC’s new Rural Health Education Complex at the University of Nebraska at Kearney in terms of statewide cancer care.

Dr. Watanabe-Galloway discussed the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center’s role as a National Cancer Institute Designated Cancer Centers.

“NCI decided several years ago that each cancer center needed to decide on its catchment area,” she said. “The entire state of Nebraska is our catchment area, which means we cover central and western parts of Nebraska, which are primarily rural, and then there are many other important, underrepresented populations included.”

Dr. Gold praised the work of the cancer center, “not just, of course, in this month where we’re talking about colorectal cancer awareness, but all the time in looking out for rural and urban communities and trying to reduce the instance of cancer in our state.”

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why is it important to research cancer

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why is it important to research cancer

Request an appointment at Mayo Clinic

why is it important to research cancer

The right way to talk with someone who has cancer

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Holidays and family celebrations are a joyous occasion for most people. But for someone with  cancer  or other serious illness, they can be a time of overwhelming anxiety and fear. And as family and friends get together, it's important to show that you care without coming across as insensitive.

Watch this "Mayo Clinic Minute" video to hear Lynne Vitagliano, a clinical social worker at Mayo Clinic, offer some helpful advice to make those uncomfortable conversations less awkward:

Many times, people mean well but don't know the right things to say to someone with cancer.

"Every person is different. So it would be hard to say that there's any one right question to ask or right thing to say. What I think is most important is to convey genuine care and concern," says Vitagliano. "Offer an invitation rather than a question. So to say something along the lines of, 'I've been thinking of you. I know a lot is going on in your life. I'm here if you'd like to talk.'"

Vitagliano says it's also important how you respond. And the best response is simply listening.

"Allow them to talk about their experience without feeling the need to kind of jump in with your own advice or suggestions," she says.

And it's important to show that you care without coming across as insensitive.

"We want to say something that we think is supportive. So we say, 'I'm sure it'll all turn out OK.' Well, we don't know that, and that's not necessarily true. And so, by saying that, it almost invalidates what they've shared with us," Vitagliano says. "It's not as supportive as saying, 'Wow, you've been through so much this year. And I'm just blown away by your strength. What can I do to help?'"

A version of this article was originally published on the Mayo Clinic News Network .

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  30. The right way to talk with someone who has cancer

    Vitagliano says it's also important how you respond. And the best response is simply listening. "Allow them to talk about their experience without feeling the need to kind of jump in with your own advice or suggestions," she says. And it's important to show that you care without coming across as insensitive.