By: Laura Donnelly
Half of people over 50 are ignoring potential symptoms of cancer due to a “stiff upper lip” and a fear of wasting their GP’s time, a study by Cancer Research UK has found.
The research came as a new NHS campaign warns the public to visit their doctor about health complaints – such as persistent heartburn – which seem trivial, but could in fact indicate cancer.
The study of more than 1,700 people aged 50 and over, questioned them about whether they had experienced any of 17 changes in their body in recent months.
Ten of the symptoms were “red flag” symptoms such as unexplained weight loss, difficulty swallowing or a sore that does not heal.
The study, published in the British Journal of General Practice, found more than 900 people had suffered such a problem in the previous three months. But when 50 of them were interviewed in-depth, 45 per cent had not seen their GP.
Participants said patients worried about wasting their doctor’s time, or assumed that the changes in their body were a natural consequence of ageing, while others feared cancer.
Dr Katriina Whitaker, a senior research fellow at University College London during the study, said: “Many of the people we interviewed had red flag symptoms but felt that these were trivial and didn’t need medical attention, particularly if they were painless or intermittent.”
She said many of the over 50s who were interviewed felt they “shouldn’t make a fuss or waste valuable NHS resources.”
“The stiff-upper-lip stoicism of some who decided not to go to their doctor was alarming because they put up with often debilitating symptoms,” she said.
Researchers said patients were more likely to get symptoms checked if they were encouraged to do so by family or friends, or if they saw a cancer awareness campaign.
One man, who experienced a persistent change in bladder habits, but did not see his GP said: “You’ve just got to get on with it. And if you go to the doctor too much, it’s seen as a sign of weakness or that you are not strong enough to manage things on your own.”
Others said it had taken them two years to mention problems troubling them, while a woman who admitted to being worried about a mole which had changed appearance said she did not want to be “the sort of person who goes running to the doctor.”
Dr Richard Roope, of Cancer Research UK, said: “The advice we give is: if in doubt, check it out – this would not be wasting your GP’s time.
“Often your symptoms won’t be caused by cancer, but if they are, the quicker the diagnosis, the better the outcome.
“Seeking prompt advice from your GP about symptoms, either on the phone or during an appointment, could be a life-saver, whatever your age,” he stressed.
Sara Hiom, director of early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK, said British attitudes appeared to play a part in a reluctance to visit the doctor.
“International comparisons have already shown us that the British public are far more worried about being a burden on the health system or ‘wasting the doctor’s time’ than in other developed countries,” she said.
A new TV and radio campaign launched today by Public Health England will warn the public that having heartburn most days for three weeks or more can be a sign of cancer.
Persistent indigestion can be an indication of oesophageal or stomach cancer, which is often diagnosed late, so that it is the fourth most common cause of cancer death in men, and fifth most common in women.
Almost 13,000 in England are diagnosed with such cancers each year, and more than 10,000 die each year.
Estimates suggest almost 1,000 lives per year could be saved in England if more cases were detected sooner, so survival rates matched the best in Europe.
Most cases are linked to lifestyle factors, such as smoking and high alcohol intake.
Other symptoms can include difficulty swallowing food, unexplained weight loss, feeling full very quickly or bloated after eating, as well as nausea, vomiting or pain and discomfort in the upper stomach.
Ten “red flag” symptoms to see your GP about, in case they mean cancer:
Persistent cough or hoarseness – could mean lung cancer.
Change in the appearance of a mole – can mean skin cancer
Persistent change in bowel habits – could mean bowel cancer
A sore that does not heal – depends where; a mouth ulcer can mean mouth cancer
Persistent difficulty swallowing – can mean oesophageal cancer
Unexplained weight loss – can mean several types of cancer
Persistent change in bladder habits – could mean bladder cancer, and in mean could mean prostate cancer
Unexplained lump – could denote many types of cancer, depending where
Persistent unexplained pain – depending where, can mean several types of cancer
Unexplained bleeding – depends where, could mean bowel cancer, cervical cancer or vulval cancer
Source: Cancer Research UK
Signs which can mean stomach or oesophageal cancer:
Food feels like it’s sticking in your throat when you swallow
Indigestion on and off for three weeks or more
Losing weight for no obvious reason
Trapped wind and frequent burping
Feeling full very quickly when eating
Feeling bloated after eating
Nausea or vomiting
Pain or discomfort in your upper stomach area
Source: Public Health England
Barbara Jacoby is an award winning blogger that has contributed her writings to multiple online publications that have touched readers worldwide.