Nearly half with cancer symptoms in the UK did not see GP in the first wave of pandemic
a man sitting in front of a television screen: Photograph: Rui Vieira/PA© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Rui Vieira/PA
Almost half of those who had a potential symptom of cancer during the pandemic’s first wave did not see a GP, even when they coughed up blood or developed a lump, a new study shows.
People held off seeking medical help because they did not want to waste health professionals’ time, add to the pressure on the NHS or go to the cancer symptoms hospital in case they caught Covid-19.
Many people’s behaviour was influenced by the government’s message during the first lockdown last spring to “stay home, protect the NHS, save lives”, researchers found.
The results have led to renewed warnings that patients’ reluctance to get checked out for cancer will result in some people being diagnosed late and having less chance of survival.
Cardiff University and Cancer Research UK’s findings are based on a survey of 7,543 adults across the UK. Of those, 3,025 (40.1%) developed at least one possible sign of cancer between March and August last year. However, 1,355 (44.8%) of them did not contact their GP about their symptoms.
a close up of a screen: The survey of 7,543 adults across the UK found 3,025 developed at least one possible sign of cancer between March and August last year. However, 1,355 of them did not contact their GP.© Photograph: Rui Vieira/PA The survey of 7,543 adults across the UK found 3,025 developed at least one possible sign of cancer between March and August last year. However, 1,355 of them did not contact their GP.
Significant numbers of those did not seek help even after experiencing a red flag symptom of possible cancer such as bringing up blood (30.7%), getting an unexplained lump or swelling (41%) or the appearance of a mole changing (58.6%).
People “put their health concerns on hold to protect the NHS”, said Prof Kate Brain, a health psychologist at Cardiff University who was the study’s principal investigator.
“Catching cancer at an early stage gives the best possible chance of surviving the disease, so we’re extremely concerned people have put off seeking help for cancer symptoms,” said Michelle Mitchell, the chief executive of Cancer Research UK.
Anyone who notices a change in their body that could be a symptom of cancer should not delay and should contact their GP at once, Mitchell added.
The paper containing the findings states that: “Worries about wasting health professionals’ time, over-stretching limited healthcare resources, access to healthcare services and Covid-19 infection rates were frequently reported barriers to seeking medical help.”
Such feelings were “notable” among those who had experienced a symptom, while “concerns about catching or transmitting coronavirus” were also common.
The findings also say that: “Participants describe putting their health concerns on hold to avoid burdening the NHS, suggesting a compounding of the ‘British stiff upper lip’ phenomenon observed in pre-Covid research.”
In-depth interviews with 30 participants found that people often put the change in their body down to an existing medical condition rather than cancer and were “fearful of seeking medical help in hospitals, in part due to media reporting of Covid-19 in hospitals”.
However, when people did visit their GP, they had a positive experience, even though appointments were by phone call or video rather than face-to-face consultations.
Cancer experts fear that the lower numbers of people with possible signs of the disease last year who did not seek help, see a specialist, or undergo diagnostic tests, may result in thousands of people dying who would have survived if their cancer had been spotted earlier. For example, 350,000 fewer people in England were urgently referred to see an oncologist by their GP between March and November last year compared to the same period in 2019.
Prof Martin Marshall, the chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: “We know that many people did not seek care during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, whether due to fear of contracting the virus or being a burden on the NHS, or a lack of clarity around “stay at home” messaging.
“This has been less of an issue since, and GP consultation rates are now higher than they were before the pandemic, with urgent cancer referrals by GPs surpassing pre-Covid levels by around autumn last year.”