By: R D Neal, P Tharmanathan, B France, N U Din, S Cotton, J Fallon-Ferguson, W Hamilton, A Hendry, M Hendry, R Lewis, U Macleod, E D Mitchell, M Pickett, T Rai, K Shaw, N Stuart, M L Tørring, C Wilkinson, B Williams, N Williams & J Emery
Published: 03 March 2015
It is unclear whether more timely cancer diagnosis brings favourable outcomes, with much of the previous evidence, in some cancers, being equivocal. We set out to determine whether there is an association between time to diagnosis, treatment and clinical outcomes, across all cancers for symptomatic presentations.
Symptomatic diagnosis of cancer is important and has been the subject of considerable innovation and intervention in recent years to achieve timelier and earlier-stage diagnosis (Emery et al, 2014); the English National Awareness and Early Diagnosis Initiative has made a major contribution to this effort (Richards and Hiom, 2009; Richards, 2009a). We know that patients value timely diagnostic workup, and that later stage at diagnosis is one of the contributory factors to poor cancer outcomes (Richards, 2009b). However, it is less clear whether more timely cancer diagnosis brings favourable outcomes. Systematic reviews in breast cancer reported that delays of 3–6 months were associated with lower survival (Richards et al, 1999), and in colorectal cancer it was concluded that there were no associations between diagnostic delays and survival and stage (Ramos et al, 2007, 2008; Thompson et al, 2010). Other reviews have been published for gynaecological cancers (Menczer, 2000), bladder (Fahmy et al, 2006), testicular (Bell et al, 2006), lung (Jensen et al, 2002; Olsson et al, 2009), paediatric cancers (Brasme et al, 2012a, 2012b) and head and neck cancers (Goy et al, 2009; Seoane et al, 2012), all with equivocal findings. No review to date has undertaken this work in a range of different cancer types.
Longer time to diagnosis may be detrimental in several ways: a more advanced stage at diagnosis, poorer survival, greater disease-related and treatment-related morbidity and adverse psychological adjustment. Conversely, harm may be caused by earlier detection of cancers without improving survival (lead-time), and detection of slow-growing tumours not needing treatment (over-diagnosis) (Esserman et al, 2013). A scoping review, undertaken before the review reported here, showed that observational studies in many cancers reported no association or an inverse relationship between longer diagnostic times and better outcomes (Neal, 2009). We therefore undertook a systematic review of the literature aiming to determine whether there is an association between time to diagnosis, treatment and clinical outcomes, across all cancers for symptomatic presentations only.
We included 177 articles reporting 209 studies. These studies varied in study design, the time intervals assessed and the outcomes reported. Study quality was variable, with a small number of higher-quality studies. Heterogeneity precluded definitive findings. The cancers with more reports of an association between shorter times to diagnosis and more favourable outcomes were breast, colorectal, head and neck, testicular and melanoma.
This is the first review encompassing many cancer types, and we have demonstrated those cancers in which more evidence of an association between shorter times to diagnosis and more favourable outcomes exists, and where it is lacking. We believe that it is reasonable to assume that efforts to expedite the diagnosis of symptomatic cancer are likely to have benefits for patients in terms of improved survival, earlier-stage diagnosis and improved quality of life, although these benefits vary between cancers.