Research has shown that half of people with possible cancer symptoms in the UK do not see a GP for at least six months, potentially reducing their chances of survival.
A survey by Cancer Research UK found that poorer people are less likely to see their family doctor than better-off people.
Only 48% of those with signs of cancer, such as difficulty swallowing or unexplained weight loss, saw a GP within six months.
Cancer Research UK (CRUK) warns that waiting so long could mean doctors miss the chance to diagnose the disease at an early stage, which could have “devastating consequences” for a patient’s health.
“As a nation, we are not very good at asking for help when we notice something is wrong, which these figures seem to confirm,” said Rachel Power, chief executive of the Patients’ Association.
These findings may help explain why the UK has consistently worse rates of early cancer diagnosis than many other European and OECD countries.
NHS England has made improving cancer diagnosis a priority and hopes to increase the proportion of all cancers detected at stage one or two, when they are more treatable, to 75% by 2028. It is introducing new blood tests to detect the disease with innovative tools for faster identifying lung cancer – the biggest cancer killer – and running public awareness campaigns that encourage people to act if they experience symptoms.
CRUK, in conjunction with YouGov, surveyed 2,468 people online in February and March, with the results representative of the UK population. Of those, 1,230 had possible symptoms of cancer, and 443 of them had a red flag symptom, which includes coughing up blood, a new or unusual lump, and changes in the appearance of a mole.
Only half of the 1,230 consulted their GP after developing possible cancer symptoms in the following six months. Slightly fewer – 48% – of those who had red flag symptoms did so. Of those who called their GP, 81% of those in the ABC1 social group made an appointment, compared with 74% of those classified as C2DE.
Similarly, while 60% of ABC1s returned to their GP if they continued to experience symptoms, only 48% of C2DEs did so.
“It’s really worrying to see such a wide gap in access to services between the UK’s most and least disadvantaged groups,” said Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of CRUK.
Dame Kelly Palmer, National Director of Cancer at NHS England, said: “We understand that talking about cancer is not easy, but talking to your GP can save a life. Early diagnosis of cancer is vital to give people the best possible treatment, and it dramatically increases the chances of survival.”
Anyone who worries they may have symptoms of cancer should seek help immediately, Palmer added.