Researchers in London and Hull looked at how people who experience possible cancer symptoms decide whether or not to seek medical help. They sent out a health survey that was completed by more than 1,700 people, aged 50 and over, from three London GP practices.
The survey specifically did not mention cancer, but incorporated a list of 17 symptoms including 10 cancer ‘alarm’ warning signs, such as persistent cough or hoarseness, unexplained lump, persistent change in bowel or bladder habits, and a sore that does not heal.
More than 900 people reported having at least one alarm symptom during the past three months. Researchers carried out in-depth interviews with almost 50 of them, almost half (45 per cent) of whom had not seen their GP about their symptoms.
Dr Katriina Whitaker, a senior research fellow at University College London during the study, said: “Many of the people we interviewed had red flag symptoms but felt that these were trivial and didn’t need medical attention, particularly if they were painless or intermittent.
“Others felt that they shouldn’t make a fuss or waste valuable NHS resources. The stiff-upper-lip stoicism of some who decided not to go to their doctor was alarming because they put up with often debilitating symptoms. Some people made the decision to get symptoms checked out after seeing a cancer awareness campaign or being encouraged to do so by family or friends – this seemed to almost legitimise their symptoms as important.”
Dr Richard Roope, Cancer Research UK’s GP expert, said: “The advice we give is: if in doubt, check it out – this would not be wasting your GP’s time. Often your symptoms won’t be caused by cancer, but if they are, the quicker the diagnosis, the better the outcome. Seeking prompt advice from your GP about symptoms, either on the phone or during an appointment, could be a life-saver, whatever your age. And the good news is that more than half of all patients diagnosed with cancer now survive for more than 10 years.”