Half of people with possible signs of cancer wait six months to contact a GP

Half of people with possible cancer symptoms in the UK do not contact a GP for at least six months, which could reduce their chances of survival, research has found.

The poorest people are less likely than the wealthiest to see their family doctor once they have sought medical help, according to a survey by Cancer Research UK.

Only 48% of those with a “red flag” cancer symptom, such as difficulty swallowing or unexplained weight loss, contacted their GP 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 a patient’s health.

“As a nation, we are not very good at seeking help when we notice something is wrong with us, which these figures seem to confirm,” said Rachel Power, chief executive of the Patients’ Association.

The findings may help explain why the UK has a persistently worse record than many other European and OECD countries in diagnosing cancer early.

NHS England has made improving cancer diagnosis a priority and hopes to increase the proportion of all cancers detected at stage 1 or 2, when they are most treatable, to 75% by 2028. It is introducing new analysis of blood to detect the disease, using innovative means to enable faster identification of lung cancer, the leading cancer killer, and conducting public awareness campaigns that encourage people to act when they detect a symptom.

CRUK, together 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 cancer symptom and 443 of them had a red flag symptom, which includes coughing up blood, a new or unusual lump and changes in the appearance of a mole.

Only half of the 1,230 had contacted their GP after developing a possible cancer symptom in the following six months. Slightly fewer, 48%, of those with red flag symptoms had done so. Of those who had called their GP, however, 81% of social group ABC1 received an appointment, compared with 74% of those classified as C2DE.

Similarly, while 60% of ABC1s returned to their GP when symptoms persisted, only 48% of C2DEs did.

“It’s really worrying to see such a wide gap in access to services between the most and least disadvantaged groups in the UK,” said Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of CRUK.

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Dame Cally Palmer, NHS England’s national director of cancer, said: “We recognize that talking about cancer is not easy, but a conversation with your GP could save a life. Early diagnosis of cancer is vital to provide it gives people the best possible treatment and dramatically increases their chances of survival.”

Anyone who is concerned that they may have a symptom of cancer should seek help immediately, Palmer added.

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