Half of UK adults with a possible cancer symptom do not contact their GP within six months, despite noticing changes in their bodies, research suggests.
A YouGov survey of 2,468 people for Cancer Research UK found that only 48% of those who had experienced a red flag symptom – including coughing up blood, unexplained weight loss and a new or unusual cold – contacted their GP within six months.
Not telling a doctor about unusual health changes or possible cancer symptoms reduces the chances of an early cancer diagnosis, leading to potentially devastating outcomes.
For example, when diagnosed at stage one – the earliest stage – more than nine in 10 (92%) people will survive bowel cancer for five years or more.
This compares to one in 10 (10%) when diagnosed at stage four – the final stage.
Cancer Research UK chief executive Michelle Mitchell said: “Detecting 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 is really worrying to see such a wide gap in access to services between the UK’s most and least vulnerable groups.
“Earlier this year, the government announced among its top priorities improving early diagnosis of cancer and tackling health inequalities.
“Cancer must remain a top priority and with the forthcoming Health Inequalities White Paper and 10-year plan for England, the new Health and Social Care Secretary has a huge opportunity to transform cancer survivorship with a clear and strong plan that works for everyone.”
According to the survey, there were also differences in people’s help-seeking behavior between the most and least exposed groups.
Among those who contacted their GP within six months, those from a higher socio-economic background were more likely to succeed in making an appointment (81%), compared to those from a lower socio-economic group (74%).
After an agreement, those with a lower socio-economic background were also less likely (48%) to return to the GP if a possible cancer symptom did not disappear than those with a higher socio-economic background (60%).
Early diagnosis makes treatment more effective and therefore improves the chances of survival.
However, people from poorer backgrounds are more likely to be diagnosed via an emergency route, which results in poorer experiences of treatment and poorer survival, say experts.
Help-seeking expert for Cancer Research UK Professor Katriina Whitaker said: “People from lower socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to face barriers at all stages of cancer treatment.
“But the first step of getting to the doctor can seem like the hardest.
“Help-seeking is a major obstacle for many people with cancer symptoms to overcome.
“It’s not just about knowledge of symptoms, but also social support, where you live, occupation and access to information.”
She added that where necessary, it is important to use campaigns for target groups that are less likely to recognize cancer symptoms.
According to Cancer Research UK, every year 30,000 extra cases of cancer in the UK can be attributed to socio-economic deprivation.
Smoking rates in the UK are around two and a half times higher and obesity rates in England are around 60% higher in more vulnerable groups than in less vulnerable groups.
This means that some people are more likely to get cancer.
And people from more disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to have close experience of cancer, which can make them more fearful of what the doctor will find and act as a deterrent to seeking help.
Difficulties in getting time off from work can also play a role in this, says the association.
The survey of UK adults over 18 was conducted from 9 February to 3 March 2022 online.
It found that 1,230 people experienced a possible cancer symptom and that 50% of participants who experienced a possible cancer symptom did not contact their GP within six months.
About 43 participants experienced a red flag cancer symptom that includes a change in the appearance of a mole, unexplained bleeding, persistent trouble swallowing, an ulcer that won’t heal, unexplained weight loss, coughing up blood and a new or unusual lump.