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Why is early diagnosis so important?

written by

Leukaemia Care, Charity

  • Online training for GPs

Around 34,000 people are diagnosed with a blood cancer each year which means collectively, blood cancer is the fifth most common form of cancer diagnosed in the UK.

Many of the symptoms of blood cancer (including tiredness and exhaustion, excessive sweating, sore bones and joints, terrible bruising and unusual bleeding) can occur in other, more common and less serious illnesses. Due to these often non-specific symptoms blood cancer presents, 33% of blood cancer patients are diagnosed via the emergency admissions route. So, we have been working to ensure that blood cancers are diagnosed earlier as diagnosing a blood cancer in the early stages remains the best way to give patients the greatest possible chance of surviving.

Three reasons why we must diagnose blood cancer earlier    

  1. Improved treatment outcomes

A recent report by Cancer Research UK suggests that people are “three times more likely to survive [cancer] if they are diagnosed early”. Earlier diagnosis results in treatment starting sooner, meaning more treatment options could be available to the patient and the treatment could therefore be more successful. Earlier diagnosis then could result in wider improved survival rates, effectively, saving lives.

  1. Improved patient experience

In addition to improved survival rates, when patients are diagnosed earlier, the overall patient experience is vastly improved.  If a patient’s blood cancer is diagnosed at an earlier stage their treatment can start earlier and as a result, the sometimes overwhelming symptoms can be reduced, improving their quality of life. Often, when treatment is started earlier, less treatment is needed overall which also reduces the burden of side effects on patients. This all contributes to improving the patient’s overall experience of their diagnosis and treatment.

  1. UK diagnosis and survival needs to be in line with Europe

Blood cancer survival in the UK is notably lower than comparable countries in Europe. It fails to keep up with the European average, and falls behind most of the more wealthy countries in Europe in particular. The Independent Cancer Taskforce, established to help develop a five-year strategy for cancer services in the UK, has published a report that recommends earlier diagnosis as a priority to help the NHS achieve “world-class cancer outcomes”. It is estimated that if the UK could catch up with the EU average, the lives of over 1,000 patients with blood cancer could be saved each year.

Three ways to help early diagnosis happen  

  1. Increased awareness of blood cancer symptoms

Because of the nature of the symptoms of blood cancer many people put their symptoms down to a minor illness, and put off visiting their GP. Raising awareness about blood cancer symptoms and encouraging people to see their doctor if they notice unusual or persistent symptoms could lead to earlier diagnosis.

Here at Leukaemia CARE, our aim is to improve awareness of the symptoms of blood cancers, encouraging people to share their concerns with their GP, leading to earlier diagnosis. As part of Blood Cancer Awareness Month (throughout September), we have created a symptom card, available to download on our website, which highlights the range of symptoms caused by blood cancers. If affected by any of these symptoms, we recommend you visit your GP. Remember many of the symptoms can occur in other, much more common and less serious illnesses as well but it is always best to visit your GP if you notice unusual or persistent symptoms.

  1. Informing and supporting GPs

With 34,000 cases of blood cancer diagnosed in the UK each year and over 40,000 registered practising GP’s, on average doctors are unlikely to see more than one blood cancer patient per year. Due to the relative rarity of blood cancer and because patients often present with non-specific symptoms, it is often difficult to diagnose in the early stages.

As part of Blood Cancer Awareness Month, Leukaemia CARE have been working with the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) to create two online eLearning programmes to help GP’s recognise clusters of symptoms that alert them to the possibility of a blood cancer.  Our aim is to support GP’s by improving their awareness of blood cancers, helping them to recognise symptoms, leading to earlier diagnosis. You can find further information about the GP tool here.

  1. Campaign for increase of GP access to diagnostic services and treatments

Raising awareness can be successful in encouraging earlier diagnosis but there is also a responsibility on the government to improve diagnostic services.  

Many patients are not receiving treatment within the target time frame (of 62 days) set out by the government. A recent report suggests “insufficient funding [and] workforces shortages” are to blame. As a result, the strategy of the Independent Cancer Taskforce focuses on the need to improve rates of earlier diagnosis in the UK by expanding diagnostic services.

It is necessary then that the strategy put forward by the Taskforce becomes a reality for more cancer patients. An improvement to diagnostic services will help treatment to begin sooner and would be “transformative” for patients in terms of enhancing patient experience and quality of life and will ultimately, save lives.

“Early diagnosis saves lives”

Earlier diagnosis gives patients the best chance of surviving cancer and a better overall experience of their care. By raising awareness of the symptoms of blood cancer and supporting GP’s in identifying them, combined with the government attempt to enhance diagnostic services, earlier diagnosis can be improved.  

Improving early diagnosis across the UK will not happen overnight but we hope that our Blood Cancer Awareness Month campaign, our GP e-learning tool and patient symptoms cards will complement the Taskforce strategy and together, we will achieve results to increase earlier diagnosis. 

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