For all the immediate dangers of COVID-19, the impact it has had on cancer screening and diagnosis could be one of its most fatal side-effects. While an individual with cancer symptoms might ordinarily visit their GP, fear of catching the virus is likely to have dissuaded many who require care. Research suggests that the reduction in urgent referrals, and delays and cancellations to treatment could contribute to a further 35,000 deaths in the next five years.
As damaging as this is, a recent survey conducted by specialist law firm, Bolt Burden Kemp, highlights that widespread ignorance of cancer symptoms could mean many more people simply don’t know that they should be getting checked out.
As a medical professional, it’s easy to assume a certain base level of knowledge amongst our patients – the location of the stomach, the liver, or the cervix, for example. But it turns out that even basic anatomical understanding is often absent, with (respectively) 67%, 74% and 65% of respondents unable to place these correctly. With this kind of rudimental knowledge lacking, it should come as no surprise that awareness of what cancers are most common, and what symptoms to watch out for, is also worryingly low.
Take the six less survivable cancers: lung, pancreatic, liver, brain, oesophageal and stomach – 38% of the public admitted to knowing nothing about them, despite them being responsible for half of all UK cancer deaths. To add to this, only 12% of people were able to correctly identify the seven most common cancer symptoms, a troubling statistic in the face of a condition that half of us will develop in our lifetime.
Studies like this reinforce the importance of expert primary care. While the patient may know that there is something wrong with them, they may not always be able to communicate the problem in a way that accurately reflects what they are experiencing.
This is where listening for key nuggets of information from the patient and asking more questions to understand exactly what their symptoms are, becomes vital. Confidently enquiring about things that may not seem relevant to them – such as their sleep quality – will help us build a more complete picture of their health. While awareness that an unexplained lump could mean cancer is high (75%), how many people understand that the fact they’re experiencing night sweats is relevant to their concerns, too?
But this is only half of the solution. Without better education for the public about their own bodies, and symptoms of cancer, there will always be a lag between the emergence of symptoms and diagnosis. A lag that, for many, could prove fatal.