In an era of more effective cancer treatments and therapies, a recent study of breast cancer patients has found that diagnosis and treatment of cancers at the early stages makes a big difference to a patient’s chances of survival. 

Over the past 20 years there has been a significant increase in the survival rate of breast cancer patients. This success has predominantly been attributed to developing treatment and therapy options available to patients. It has been suggested, as a result, that traditional prognostic factors such as tumour size and number of positive lymph nodes may no longer predict survival.

Researchers in the Netherlands investigated whether this was the case. They compared the overall survival of 173,797 female breast cancer patients from 1999-2005 (Group 1) and 2006-2012 (Group 2) using data from the Netherlands Cancer Registry. The results of their research suggested that the relative survival of Group 2 patients at five years’ follow-up was 96%, compared with 91% of Group 1 patients. They found that the tumours diagnosed in the second group  were often smaller, lower grade and more often lymph node negative. 

The researchers concluded that tumour stage and lymph node status had a significant influence on overall survival in both groups of patients. The researchers determined, therefore, that tumour size and nodal status “still has a significant and major influence on overall mortality” and that ”…early stage detection and surgery is crucial”. 

Arran Macleod, a clinical negligence solicitor, said: “There are continuing developments in cancer treatment options which is obviously good news. However, it may lead to a misconception that, as long as the cancer is caught, the treatment available will be able to eradicate it. This is not the case and this study demonstrates that earlier diagnosis of cancer when the tumours are smaller and have not reached the lymph nodes will result in a greater chance of survival. 

“We act regularly for clients who are concerned about potential delays in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. Even a six month delay can have a huge impact on the development of the size of the cancer which, in turn, will affect the patient’s survival chances. It is very important, therefore, that doctors screen patients they think are at risk of cancer early. The Government’s recent pledge of £1.5bn into cancer diagnostics over the next five years is an important step to ensure that patients suspected of cancer are screened and given a definitive diagnosis quickly.”