Almost half of people with possible cancer symptoms didn’t see GP in first wave of pandemic

In collaboration with the Press Association

Nearly half of people who had potential cancer symptoms in the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic did not contact their GP, a Cancer Research UK and Cardiff University study suggests.

Initial findings of the UK-wide survey, focusing on the experiences of 7,543 people from March to August 2020, found that possible cancer symptoms were common during the first wave, with 40% of people saying they had experienced at least one potential cancer symptom. 

People gave a variety of reasons for putting off seeking medical help, including not wanted to burden the NHS. 

Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said that catching cancer at an early stage gives people the best possible chance of surviving the disease. “We’re extremely concerned people have put off seeking help for cancer symptoms, even if this was for the best of intentions.”

‘Concerning’ findings

Of those who experienced symptoms, 45% admitted to not contacting their GP for any symptom. People did not seek help even for ‘red flag symptoms’ – 31% of those who experienced coughing up blood, 41% of those who had an unexplained lump or swelling and 59% of those who noticed a change in the appearance of a mole did not contact their GP. 

More than two-thirds of participants reporting feeling safe from COVID-19 if they needed to attend an appointment at their GP or hospital, but nearly three quarters (72.3%) were worried about delayed cancer tests and investigations due to the pandemic. 

Worrying about wasting healthcare professionals’ time (15.4%), worrying about putting extra strain on the NHS (12.6%) and not wanting to be seen as someone who makes a fuss (12%) were some of the barriers reported. 

“Worryingly, we don’t yet know what the pandemic’s long-term impact on cancer stage and survival will be, so it’s vital people don’t delay contacting their GP if they notice any unusual changes to their body,” said Mitchell. 

"We want to hear from you"

In-depth  interviews with 30 people found that despite putting concerns on hold so as not to burden the NHS, they were pleased with the care received when they did contact their GP. They even wanted to keep remote GP consultations an option alongside face-to-face consultations.

And though there was fear or nervousness around attending primary care services and catching or passing on the virus at secondary care services, those who did attend either service face-to-face described feeling “safe” and “secure” when doing so.

Dr Neil Smith, Cancer Research UK’s GP adviser, said that GPs across the UK are doing everything they can to ensure people get the care they need. “So if you’ve noticed an unusual or persistent symptom, tell your doctor. We want to hear from you.”

In most cases it won’t be cancer, but if it is, catching it early gives someone the best chance of successful treatment. “For those who’ve been unable to get through to your doctor’s surgery, although it may be frustrating, I would encourage you to keep trying. GPs like me are still here to help you.”

To cater for the number of patients who require medical attention, the NHS will need to operate at pre-pandemic levels to ensure everyone gets seen. And as diagnostic times are already long, investment is needed to increase capacity and make sure people also get timely diagnosis and treatment. 

Michelle Mitchell said: “NHS staff have worked incredibly hard to manage the increased strain COVID-19 has put on an already stretched system but the government must protect cancer services if we’re to avoid the real possibility that cancer survival could go backwards for the first time in decades.”