Half of people with possible cancer symptoms in the UK do not contact a GP for at least six months, potentially reducing their chances of survival, research has found.
Poorer people are less likely than the better-off to see their family doctor once they have eventually sought medical help, a survey by Cancer Research UK found.
Only 48% of those who display a “red flag” cancer symptom, such as difficulty swallowing or unexplained weight loss, contacted their GP surgery within six months.
Cancer Research UK (CRUK) warned that waiting so long could mean doctors miss the chance to diagnose the disease early, which can have “devastating effects” on the patient’s health.
“As a nation we’re not very good at seeking help when we notice something’s wrong with us, which these figures seem to confirm,” said Rachel Power, the chief executive of the Patients Association.
The findings may help to explain why the UK has a persistently worse record than many other European and OECD countries on diagnosing cancer early.
NHS England has made improving cancer diagnosis a priority and hopes to increase the proportion of all cancer cases detected at stage one or two, when they are more treatable, to 75% by 2028. It is introducing new blood tests to spot the disease, using innovative means to enable quicker identification of lung cancer – the biggest cancer killer – and running public awareness campaigns urging people to act when they spot a symptom.
CRUK, in conjunction with YouGov, surveyed 2,468 people online in February and March, with the results weighted to be representative of the UK population. Of those, 1,230 experienced a possible symptom of cancer, and 443 of them had had a red flag symptom, which includes coughing up blood, a new or unusual lump and changes to the appearance of a mole.
Just half of the 1,230 had contacted their GP practice after developing a possible cancer symptom in the ensuing six months. Slightly fewer – 48% – of those with red flag symptoms had done so. Of those who had rung their GP, though, 81% of those in social groups ABC1 got an appointment, compared with 74% of those classed as C2DE.
Similarly, while 60% of ABC1s went back to their GP when they continued to exhibit symptoms, only 48% of C2DEs did so.
“It’s really worrying to see such a large gap in accessing services between the UK’s most and least deprived groups,” said Michelle Mitchell, CRUK’s chief executive.
Dame Cally Palmer, NHS England’s national cancer director, said: “We recognise that it is not easy talking about cancer, but a conversation with your GP could save a life. Early diagnosis of cancer is vital to give people the best possible treatment and it dramatically boosts chances of survival.”
Anyone worried that they may have a symptom of cancer should seek help immediately, Palmer added.