Cancer fight 'hampered in UK by stiff upper lip'

Lung cancer Researchers surveyed nearly 20,000 adults in a number of countries

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The UK's "stiff upper lip" culture may explain why it lags behind other countries when it comes to beating cancer, say experts.

Researchers, who surveyed nearly 20,000 adults in six high-income countries, said they found embarrassment often stopped Britons visiting the doctor.

Respondents in the UK were as aware of cancer symptoms as those in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Sweden, but more reluctant to seek help, they said.

A third feared wasting a doctor's time.

One in six of the men and women aged 50-and-over surveyed in the UK was embarrassed about sharing their symptoms with a doctor, the researchers from King's College London and University College London, with help from Cancer Research UK and Ipsos Mori, found.

They said, in the British Journal of Cancer, that this may partly explain why the UK has a far lower cancer survival rate than other developed nations, despite good access to skilled medical staff and cutting-edge treatments.

Start Quote

We don't know why British people feel like that. It may be that we are more stoic and have a war-time mentality”

End Quote Dr Lindsay Forbes Lead researcher

The researchers surveyed people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but not Scotland.

'UK phenomenon'

Data shows that for cancer survival, the UK ranks behind many countries, including the five other nations looked at in the study.

According to estimates, the lives of more than 5,000 cancer patients could be saved each year in England alone if the country matched the best European survival rates.

Former Health Secretary Andrew Lansley pledged to achieve this target by the next general election in 2015, with the government's cancer strategy.

Lead researcher Dr Lindsay Forbes said: "This is a real UK phenomenon. UK people really stood out in our study.

"As a nation we are much more likely to say we are embarrassed about going to the doctor or we are worried that we will take up a doctor's time.

"We don't know why British people feel like that. It may be that we are more stoic and have a war-time mentality.

"We know that older people in particular can get a symptom and then wait for weeks or months before going to see their doctor."

Sara Hiom, of Cancer Research UK, said the charity "and others are working hard to understand and address these potential barriers to early presentation and encourage people to tell their doctor if they have noticed something different about their body".

"More work also needs to be done to tackle the poor awareness that cancer risk increases with age," she added.

The researchers note that Denmark also ranks relatively low for cancer survival. They suspect this could be due to delays in patients accessing timely hospital care - something which may also apply to the UK to some extent.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 212.

    I dare say the 'stiff upper lip' generation are a dying breed, and it is they who are most conscious of the need not to be wasting NHS resources. Subsequent generations, I believe, demand the full panoply of NHS services as of right; they are NOT the stiff upper lip brigade! So, this problem, such as it is, will be resolved with the passing of time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 188.

    I work on an Early Detection of Cancer project and we have just spoken to over 10,000 people in the last 2 years encouraging them to know the symptoms, see their GP's and do the screening tests. Our funding from the NHS has just been pulled saying they are going to campaign nationally. But we know talking to people in their community & getting surgeries on board can make a real difference.

  • rate this

    Comment number 185.

    Doctors are overworked. We feel the need to bother them with simple aches, pains and colds. If we were more used to seeing nurses (who exist in most surgeries) for these minor complaints, we could use doctors better. We would learn that doctors are OK to be bothered when we were in need of a diagnosis of something that was really worrying. We'd only bother them when we thought it important.

  • rate this

    Comment number 170.

    Went to my doctor as i suspected i had cancer
    the doctor thought i was being overly concerned even when i pointed
    out to him the poster he had in his waiting room was a roll
    call for the symptoms i had.
    i knew if i did not get to the bottom of my symptoms i would be in trouble so went privately for tests
    turns out i was right i had testicular cancer
    got treated and survived

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    The problem I find, and I do see the doctor regularly, is that they don't seem to care and don't take enough interest in what the patient is saying. I think that doctors need to be more welcoming and take more interest in the patients concerns, more like the old 'family' doctors used to. If their treatment doesn't work, they leave in without an answer, but still with the problem!


Comments 5 of 10


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