Speak Up, Docs Don’t Read Minds

Cancer mortality rates higher in the UK where people embarrassed to bother physicians

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) “Keep calm and carry on” may be a good motto for minor frustrations in life, but not when it comes to the possibility of cancer. Good communication with healthcare providers is important for diagnosis.

A recent study surveyed former cancer patients from Canada, Australia, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom about their beliefs and attitudes concerning cancer before and at the time of diagnosis.

The study’s results showed British people were more likely to feel embarrassed or not want to “bother” a healthcare provider with their symptoms. Researchers concluded this lack of communication could explain lower success rates in beating cancer in the UK.

"Tell your doctor about all symptoms ASAP."

Lindsay Forbes, MD, from the department of Psychological Medicine at King’s College London in the UK, worked with an international team to investigate cultural factors in beating cancer in high-income countries.

The International Cancer Benchmarking Partnership (ICBP) provided international cancer data from Denmark, the UK, Sweden, Canada, Australia and Norway for this study. These countries all have similar healthcare systems and available cancer treatments.

Researchers conducted telephone interviews of 19,079 men and women 50 years of age or older in the previously mentioned countries using the Awareness and Beliefs about Cancer questionnaire.

Interview results showed participants understood the following:

Awareness that the risk of cancer increased with age:

  • 14 percent in the UK
  • 13 percent in Canada
  • 16 percent in Australia
  • 25 percent in Denmark
  • 29 percent in Norway
  • 38 percent in Sweden

Patient worry about wasting the doctor’s time or embarrassment about going to the doctor with a serious symptom:

  • 9 percent in Sweden
  • 11 percent in Norway
  • 12 percent in Denmark
  • 14 percent in Australia
  • 21 percent in Canada
  • 34 percent in the UK

Awareness of cancer symptoms before diagnosis was similar across all countries.

Previous ICBP research provided data on lung, breast, bowel and ovarian cancers diagnosed between 1995 and 2007 in these countries. That research gave insight into cancer patients who live at least one year after diagnosis. Patients in the UK and Denmark had lower success rates than patients in the rest of the countries. Lower rates could not be explained by less access to quality health care in these countries.

The authors concluded that cultural barriers to seeking healthcare earlier, which included lower awareness of age-related risk and greater concern over bothering a doctor with symptoms, could explain the lower success rates for beating cancer, especially in the UK.

Authors suggested the UK work to create interventions to encourage people to contact a primary care physician to check any symptoms that could be related to cancer.

Catching cancer in its early stages could greatly improve treatment options and long-term health outcomes.

While the researchers did not study the attitudes of Americans, these findings highlight a key aspect of health care in the US: the importance of an open-ended conversation between patient and doctor.

This study was published in January in the British Journal of Cancer (BJC).

Various public cancer research institutes and foundations in each of the countries involved in the study supported funding. No conflicts of interest were reported.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
January 29, 2013
Last Updated:
January 30, 2013