People putting their lives at risk by dismissing cancer symptoms

By | December 2, 2014

More than half (53 per cent) of 1,700 people who completed a health questionnaire said they had experienced at least one red-flag cancer ‘alarm’ symptom during the previous three months. But only two per cent of them thought that cancer was a possible cause.

Researchers sent the questionnaire listing 17 symptoms — including 10 widely-publicised potential cancer warning signs, such as an unexplained cough, bleeding, and a persistent change in bowel or bladder habits — to people, aged 50 and over, registered with three London general practices.

Cancer was not mentioned, but they were asked which of the symptoms they had experienced, what they thought caused them, if they were concerned that symptoms were serious and whether they had consulted their GP.

The results showed that people rarely attributed potential signs of cancer to the disease, putting them down to other reasons instead, such as age, infection, arthritis, piles and cysts.

Dr Katriina Whitaker, senior research fellow at University College London and lead study author, said: “Most people with potential warning symptoms don’t have cancer, but some will and others may have other diseases that would benefit from early attention. That’s why it’s important that these symptoms are checked out, especially if they don’t go away. But people could delay seeing a doctor if they don’t acknowledge cancer as a possible cause.

“It’s worrying that even the more obvious warning symptoms, such as unexplained lumps or changes to the appearance of a mole, were rarely attributed to cancer, although they are often well recognised in surveys that assess the public’s knowledge of the disease. Even when people thought warning symptoms might be serious, cancer didn’t tend to spring to mind. This might be because people were frightened and reluctant to mention cancer, thought cancer wouldn’t happen to them, or believed other causes were more likely.”

Overall, people taking part in the study appraised the cancer warning ‘alarm’ symptoms as more serious than ‘non alarm’ symptoms, such as sore throat and feeling tired, on the questionnaire list. Over half (59 per cent) of them contacted a doctor about their ‘alarm’ symptoms.

Sara Hiom, director of early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK, said: “Making that doctor’s appointment is important. It’s not a waste of time for the GP or the patient — it really could save your life. Diagnosing cancer early saves lives because it gives patients a better chance that treatments will be successful.

“Most cancers are picked up through people going to their GP about symptoms, and this study indicates that opportunities for early diagnosis are being missed. Its results could help us find new ways of encouraging people with worrying symptoms to consider cancer as a possible cause and to get them checked out straightaway with a GP.”

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