Health

Half of patients with cancer symptoms put off seeing GP for half a year

Half of adults in the UK who have a possible cancer symptom do not contact their GP within six months of spotting a change to their body, a poll has revealed.

And 45 per cent of people who experience a ‘red flag’ cancer symptom, including coughing up blood, unexplained weight loss and a new or unusual lump, did not contact their GP within half a year, according to a YouGov survey for Cancer Research UK.

Being diagnosed early can help people survive cancer but the chances of this happening reduce significantly if people don’t tell their doctor about unusual changes to their health or possible cancer symptoms.

When bowel cancer is diagnosed at stage one, its earliest stage, more than nine in 10 people will survive it for five years or more, compared with one in 10 when diagnosed at stage four, the latest stage.

Campaigner Dame Deborah James, who died from bowel cancer at the age of 40 in June, urged people to check their poo to help increase earlier diagnoses.

The shocking figures come as people across the country continue to struggle to get GP appointments.

A major NHS-backed survey last month found half of sick Britons have not seen a GP in a year, with most saying they find it too difficult to book an appointment.

And more than 10,000 people are waiting at least three months to see a hospital doctor with suspected cancer after being referred by their GP.

Half of adults in the UK who have a possible cancer symptom do not contact their GP within six months of spotting a change to their body, a YouGov survey for Cancer Research UK has revealed

45 per cent of people who experience a 'red flag' cancer symptom, including coughing up blood, unexplained weight loss and a new or unusual lump, did not contact their GP within half a year

45 per cent of people who experience a ‘red flag’ cancer symptom, including coughing up blood, unexplained weight loss and a new or unusual lump, did not contact their GP within half a year

Study says biology behind men’s cancer risk, not drinking and smoking 

Men notoriously drink and smoke more than women — but that is not the reason they have a higher cancer risk.

A major study suggests biological differences are the real reason behind the disparity between sexes. 

Understanding these differences could help to improve prevention and treatment, researchers say. 

The study looked at 300,000 middle-aged and older Americans who did not have cancer over 15 years.

Men were more than twice as likely to develop the disease compared to women — even when lifestyle factors were ruled out.

‘This suggests that there are intrinsic biological differences between men and women that affect susceptibility to cancer,’ said lead researcher Dr Sarah Jackson, an epidemiologist at the National Cancer Institute.

Researchers suggested differences in genes, hormones and the immune system all play a role.

Since 2020-21, early cancer diagnosis has been one of three priority areas for primary care networks, in which local GP practices work together with community, mental health, social care, pharmacy, hospital and voluntary services.

One of the key ambitions of the NHS Long Term Plan, which was published in 2019, aims for 75 per cent of people with cancer to be diagnosed early, at either stage one or two, by 2028.

Earlier this year MPs in the Health and Social Care Committee said they did not believe the NHS was on track to meet the Government’s 75 per cent early diagnosis target by 2028 after finding ‘little evidence of a serious effort’ that gaps in the cancer workforce were being addressed.

The YouGov poll, which surveyed 2,468 people in February and March this year, found almost half – 1,230 people – said they had experienced a possible cancer symptom.

Out of this 1,230, 50 per cent (615 people) did not contact their GP within six months, 47 per cent did and three per cent didn’t want to say in their response.

The possible cancer symptoms that respondents said they’d experienced included a persistent change in bladder or bowel habits, constant tiredness, a persistent cough, shortness of breath, an ulcer that doesn’t heal and red or white patches in the mouth.

Almost a fifth – 443 participants – experienced a red flag cancer symptom, with 45 per cent of these not contacting their GP within 6 months, 48 per cent contacting and 7 per cent not wanting to say.

Out of those who did contact their GP within six months, 81 per cent of those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds were more likely to be successful in making an appointment, compared to 74 per cent of those from a lower socioeconomic group, the poll revealed.

Those who did not successfully make an appointment include those who tried to call the GP and could not get through, did not get a response, weren’t called back or who got through but could not get an appointment.

Every year 30,000 extra cases of cancer in the UK are attributable to socioeconomic deprivation, according to analysis by Cancer Research UK.

Experts have suggested that people from deprived backgrounds, more of whom are likely to have had close-hand experience of cancer, are more afraid of what the doctor will find which deters them from seeking help in the first place.

It results in them being more likely to be diagnosed through an emergency route, leading to worse experiences of treatment and poorer survival rates.

Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, Michelle Mitchell said: ‘Spotting cancer early is vital if more people are to survive, and the first step in that process is getting help for a possible cancer symptom. It’s really worrying to see such a large gap in accessing services between the UK’s most and least deprived groups.

‘Earlier this year, the Government announced among its top priorities were improving early diagnosis of cancer and tackling health disparities.

‘Cancer must remain a top priority and with the upcoming Health Disparities White Paper and ten Year Plan for England, the new Health and Social Care Secretary has a huge opportunity to transform cancer survival with a clear and strong plan that works for all.’

Professor Katriina Whitaker, a help-seeking expert for Cancer Research UK, said: ‘People from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to face barriers at every stage of cancer care. But the first step of getting to the doctor can seem like the hardest.

‘It’s not only about knowledge of symptoms, but also social support, where you live, occupation and access to information.

‘Campaigns promoting symptom awareness and the importance of diagnosing cancer early are great ways to start conversations that lead people or their loved ones to take action. Where necessary, it’s important to target groups who are less likely to recognise cancer symptoms.’

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: ‘The NHS has launched “Help Us, Help You” campaigns to encourage people with symptoms to come forward, and address the barriers that are deterring patients from accessing the NHS, and these campaigns have contributed to the record referral rates.’

But even once suspected cancer patients are able to see their family doctor, more than 10,000 have to wait at least three months to be referred to a hospital for diagnosis. 

Leaked NHS documents suggest 104-day waits to see a cancer specialist increased from around 8,600 earlier this year to five figures in June.

An analysis by the Health Service Journal found patents with suspected breast, skin and lower gastro-intestinal cancers faced the longest waits. 

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