Cancer: one in four too scared to seek medical help over symptom

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By Denis Campbell Health Editor

People with signs of the disease are failing to act, with many worrying they will waste a doctor’s time, a new survey reveals

Despite discovering a potential symptom of cancer, half the UK population would not seek medical help with many too afraid that they may be wasting a doctor’s time by raising it.

In addition, one in four people would not bother having a symptom examined for fear of what the doctor might find, according to a new survey by Populus.

Similarly, one in five (21%) adults – 18% of men and 25% of women – would put off acting on their discovery through worry that they would be wasting a doctor’s time.

Another 13% would put off seeing a doctor because the appointment time was not convenient, 8% because they would be too embarrassed and 7% as a result of being too busy.

Only 49% of the 2,000 adults surveyed said they would always seek help immediately if they became aware of a symptom that could indicate cancer, such as a lump.

Experts have voiced concern at the findings, warning that such delay and reluctance are partly responsible for Britain’s continuing poor record in the early diagnosis of cancer. They have called for action by ministers and NHS bosses to banish “worrying attitudes” which could be costing lives.

“In the UK we still seem to be uniquely bothered about ‘wasting’ our GP’s time. We need the public to know that it is never a nuisance or a waste of time to ask our GP about what could be a symptom of cancer,” said Professor Sir Mike Richards, who was the government’s cancer “tsar” in 1999-2013 and also chief inspector of hospitals for the Quality Care Commission until 2017.

The NHS has tried in recent years to educate the public about the need to act quickly when they discover potential signs of cancer. Family doctors have been referring many more patients than before for tests for suspected cancer to increase earlier detection. But Britain still lagged behind the rates of early diagnosis in other countries, added Richards, who is senior counsel at Incisive Health, a health lobbying firm that commissioned the survey. “But until we match the early diagnosis rates of other comparable countries, we won’t match their survival rates,” he said.

Evidence collected by Public Health England (PHE) shows that all of the 12 Be Clear on Cancer campaigns it ran in 2013-15 – each of which highlighted a different form of cancer and its symptoms – led to GPs referring more patients for urgent investigation.

“Our Be Clear on Cancer campaigns do tackle these worrying attitudes, which may be contributing to some people missing out on getting diagnosed early”, said Prof Anne Mackie, PHE’s director of screening.

The agency is planning to mount further awareness-raising campaigns, including one in early 2019 on cervical cancer, in response to an alarming drop-off in the number of women attending appointments to be screened for signs of the disease.

Richards added: “We need to keep getting the message out to the public not to be embarrassed, not to be afraid, and not to worry about being a nuisance. If you have a symptom which could be from cancer, please see your GP. It could save your life.”

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