Patients avoid considering cancer

  • Date: 12 December 2014

PATIENTS may often delay consulting with GPs over early cancer "alarm symptoms" attributing these to less serious causes according to a recent study published in the journal PLoS ONE.

Researchers analysed survey results from 1,724 people registered at three London general practices who were presented with a list of 17 symptoms and asked if they had experienced these in the last three months. Ten of these “alarm symptoms” featured in public health cancer campaigns.

Over half (53 per cent) reported experiencing at least one alarm symptom in the past three months though only 2 per cent of these cited cancer as a possible cause. Cancer attributions were highest for “unexplained lump” (7 per cent) but changes in bladder habit, persistent unexplained pain and unexplained weight loss were rarely acknowledged to be cancer symptoms.

A higher proportion of patients (23 per cent) were concerned their symptom might be "serious", ranging from 12 per cent for change in a mole to 41 per cent for unexplained pain. The survey found that just over half of the patients had contacted their doctor about their symptom (59 per cent), although this varied by symptom.

Lead researcher Dr Katriina Whitaker, senior research fellow at University College London, said: “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.”

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