Low Symptom Awareness Associated with Poorer Cancer Survival Rates

A general lack of knowledge for symptoms of cancer linked to regions where cancer survival is worse.

Cancer symptom awareness was found to be much lower in regions with poorer cancer survival rates, according to a study published in the British Journal of Cancer.

The study was the first in England to examine whether regional variation in cancer survival could be linked to regional variation in cancer symptom awareness and barriers to seeing a physician.

The findings of the study revealed that the general awareness of cancer symptoms varies greatly across England and, on average, each additional cancer symptom recognized was associated with about a 1.6% increase in 1-year overall survival for patients in that region. Only breast cancer survival was found to be associated with perceived barriers to seeing a physician, such as embarrassment and lack of transportation.

The lowest awareness of cancer symptoms and the highest average number of barriers to seeking medical help was among East London residents, while the highest awareness was found in areas such as Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, and Peterborough.

“A range of things can influence cancer survival,” said lead study author Maja Niksic. “Stage of disease at diagnosis is one of them, and if we can ensure more people know what to look out for and see their GP [general practitioner] if they notice any unusual or persistent changes, we may be able to reduce the numbers of patients who are diagnosed with advanced disease, where curative treatment is not often an option."

Based on the findings, Niksic believes that health campaigns should focus on educating individuals about recognizing cancer symptoms early, and to seek medical advice for these, particularly in socioeconomically deprived areas where cancer survival is generally lower.

“Research like this helps reinforce the value of the Government’s investment in public cancer awareness campaigns, and can be used to better inform and direct efforts,” Niksic said.”

Since there are different factors that influence cancer development and survival rates, researchers believe it is necessary for individuals to be properly educated.

“It’s important the public are informed about getting to know their body and what’s normal for them, and spotting potential cancer signs and symptoms,” said Jessica Kirby, senior health information manager at Cancer Research UK. “And we need to ensure people feel they can go and see their GP if they notice any unusual changes.

“Many things influence cancer survival and there could be other explanations for the variation in survival across the UK. For example, risk factors like smoking could influence survival, and the way health services are set up may also play a part. The NHS should ensure that everyone can have the right information and access to services to give them the best chance of being diagnosed and treated properly, wherever they live.”