Cancer patients afraid to waste their GP’s time

Patients are afraid of wasting GP's time
Patients are afraid of wasting GP's time
Have your say

People are ignoring cancer warning signs because they worry about wasting their doctor’s time, research has shown.

Patients displaying so-called “red flag” warning symptoms are routinely putting off visiting their GP due to fears their condition might be trivial, a study found.

Others say they avoid getting their problems checked out through fear of a cancer diagnosis, according to the “alarming” results of a Cancer Research UK study.

Findings are published in the British Journal of General Practice today and indicate that Britons adopt a stiff upper lip, lack confidence in the healthcare system, or they think their problem is down to ageing. Others believe their symptoms will go away of their own accord.

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.

“Others felt that 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.

“Some people made the decision to get symptoms checked out after seeing a cancer awareness campaign or being encouraged to do so by family or friends, this seemed to almost legitimise their symptoms as important.”

More than 1,700 people aged 50 and over were sent a health survey featuring symptoms typical of cancer – such as a persistent cough and change in bowel habits – and asked to decide whether or not they would seek medical help.

The survey specifically did not mention cancer, but incorporated a list of 17 symptoms.

More than 900 people reported having at least one alarm symptom during the past three months. Researchers carried out in-depth interviews with almost 50 of them, almost half (45 per cent) of whom had not seen their GP about their symptoms. One woman with persistent abdominal pain did not go for a recommended test. She said: “At times I thought it was bad ... but when it kind of fades away, you know, it doesn’t seem worth pursuing really.”

A man, who experienced a persistent change in bladder habits, 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.”

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.”

The warning comes on the same day that doctors claimed that having heartburn most days for three weeks or more can be a sign of cancer, according to a health campaign.

A national Be Clear on Cancer campaign launch coincides with results of a new survey commissioned by Public Health England, which reveals only one in two people (55 per cent) would visit their doctor if they had heartburn most days for three weeks or more.

Having the complaint this often can be a sign of oesophageal or stomach cancer, the campaign warns.