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Dismissing symptoms leads to late diagnosis of cancer

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A persistent cough is a cancer alarm sign A persistent cough is a cancer alarm sign

People who dismiss symptoms of cancer as 'trivial' or are concerned about wasting a healthcare professional's time are not diagnosed as they could be, a study published in the British Journal of General Practice has found.

Researchers from University College, London sent a health survey to 4858 patients aged over 50 registered at one of three general practices in London. Of this number, 1724 patients responded. The survey used a list of 17 symptoms, including 10 cancer warning signs, such as unexplained lumps, sores that do not heal and a persistent cough. The survey did not refer to the symptoms as linked to cancer.

Of the respondents, 915 reported that they had at least one of the cancer symptoms in the previous three months. The researchers then interviewed 48 of the respondents, and discovered that 45.2 per cent had not visited their general practice to be assessed.

Dr Katriina Whitaker, a senior research fellow at University College London, and one of the study's authors, 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.'

Many of the interviewees who had decided to visit their general practice cited reasons such as their symptoms not going away, instinct that something was not right, and awareness or fear that they might have cancer. Others said that they brought up the symptom during a routine check up. Several said they would rather use an emergency route.

Sara Hiom, director of early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK, said: 'Spotting and treating cancer early means patients have a far better chance of beating the disease – so it is important we understand why some people with potential symptoms decide not to get them checked out straightaway.'

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