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Cancer Screening and Early Detection Research

Breast nodules detected during screening by standard 2D digital mammogram (left) and tomosynthesis (right).

Credit: Yang T, Biomed Res Int. June 2013; doi: 10.1155/2013/597253

The Importance of Cancer Screening and Detection Research

People whose cancers are detected through screening, before symptoms develop, may be less likely to die from their disease than people whose cancers are not found until symptoms appear. As a result of important successes in screening and early detection, the risk of death has declined for some cancer types. Deaths from cervical cancer in the United States, for example, dropped substantially after screening with the Pap test became common practice, and screening for colorectal, lung, and breast cancer have also been shown to reduce deaths from these cancers. For some cancer sites, like the cervix, skin, colon, and rectum, screening for and removal of precancerous growths can prevent cancer from occurring in the first place.

However, even effective screening tests can have downsides, including the risk of overdiagnosis and overtreatment—the diagnosis and treatment of cancers that would not cause symptoms, health complications, or death.

This understanding has led to intensive study of ways to identify and distinguish those screen-detected cancers that are truly life threatening and require immediate treatment from those for which treatment is unnecessary or can be safely delayed.

And, unfortunately, effective screening tests do not exist for many cancers. Research to identify early detection strategies for these cancer types may lead to new developments that can prevent cancer deaths. A greater understanding of the underlying biology of many cancers—in particular, how they progress from precancers to invasive cancer—is creating new avenues for advances in screening and early detection. Technological advances in areas such as imaging and detection of DNA and proteins shed by cancer cells into the circulation may also contribute to better, more precise screening and earlier detection.

Selected NCI Activities in Cancer Screening and Detection Research

Developing and testing new interventions for screening and early detection can take decades. These studies also are often expensive and logistically difficult to conduct. Although research on cancer screening and early detection can be challenging, the potential rewards, in terms of cancer deaths avoided, make it an extremely important and valuable area of study.

NCI supports a variety of programs designed to improve early detection, enhance cancer screening, and address screening barriers that contribute to health disparities.  

Recent Research Findings in Cancer Screening and Detection