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Embarrassment hinders UK patients seeking help over early cancer symptoms

By News team

Embarrassment may be stopping people in the UK from seeking medical advice about symptoms that could potentially be serious, an international study concludes.

Over 19,000 people aged 50 years and older living in six countries were surveyed for the paper, published in the British Journal of Cancer (2013;108:14). Although there was little difference in general awareness of cancer symptoms, such as unexplained weight loss or a change in bowel habits, nor in beliefs such as cancer being a terminal disease, people in the UK were significantly more likely to cite embarrassment or wasting the doctor’s time as a reason for not making an appointment to discuss what could be a sign of early cancer. General understanding that age increases the risk of developing cancer was also lower in the UK – particularly in Northern Ireland and Wales – than in Sweden, Denmark and Norway, although the UK figures were comparable to Canada and Australia.

The authors of the study, which was led jointly by King’s College and University College London, do not link the UK’s relatively poor cancer survival rates to the barriers to symptomatic presentation that became evident during their research. This was in part because people in Denmark, where cancer survival rates are comparable to the UK, appeared much more likely to make a doctor’s appointment. However, the researchers do highlight the need to develop ways to encourage people in the UK to seek help in a much more timely fashion if they develop symptoms that may be indicative of cancer.

Royal Pharmaceutical Society board member Graham Phillips said that pharmacy has a valuable role to play in helping people who have worrying symptoms but are reluctant to go to their GP: "Pharmacies are very familiar environments, they have a more relaxed atmosphere and many patients feel comfortable asking for and getting health advice there." He also pointed to evidence supporting symptom recognition in at-risk groups by pharmacists.

However, Mr Phillips added that patients often received mixed messages about when to seek medical attention: "We tell people not to go to the doctor with a cough, which is understandable, but a persistent cough is a symptom of potential lung cancer, and I think patients end up confused about which symptom is important."

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2013.11115959

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