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Stiff upper lip delays cancer diagnosis

Embarrassment and fear of wasting their doctors' time may stop people going to the doctors with early cancer symptoms
WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

30th January 2013 - If you thought British reserve was a thing of the past after the Olympics - think again. An international study reveals it's still very much in evidence and may be costing us our health.

According to new research, led jointly by King's College London and UCL (University College London), the traditional 'stiff upper lip' may be stopping British people going to see their GP with early symptoms of cancer.

Embarrassment and not wanting to waste our doctors' time are more frequently reported by British people than people in other countries and researchers believe this may explain the reason why cancer survival rates are not as good in the UK as in other high-income countries.

International study

The study is the largest of its kind and is published in the British Journal of Cancer. It's part of the International Cancer Benchmarking Partnership which has previously found that for lung, breast, bowel and ovarian cancers diagnosed between 1995 and 2007, Australia, Canada, Sweden and Norway had the highest rates of survival, and Denmark and UK the lowest, despite all the countries having similarly good cancer registration systems and good access to health care.

For example, one year survival rates for those diagnosed with lung cancer between 2005 and 2007 in the UK were 30% compared to 44% in Sweden.

The researchers wanted to find out whether survival rates for a country might be influenced by the population's cancer awareness and beliefs. In partnership with Cancer Research UK and Ipsos MORI, the team surveyed 19,079 men and women aged 50 and older in Australia (4,002 individuals), Canada (2,064), Denmark (2,000), Norway (2,009), Sweden (2,039) and the UK (6,965), not including Scotland.


The researchers found there was little difference in awareness of cancer symptoms and beliefs about cancer outcomes between the countries.

However, the study revealed significant differences in when people went to see their doctor with symptoms. Being worried about wasting the doctor's time was particularly common in the UK (34%) and least common in Sweden (9%). Embarrassment about going to the doctor with a symptom that might be serious was most commonly reported in the UK (15%) and least in Denmark (6%). The study also found that awareness of the risk of cancer being higher in older people varied significantly across countries, being lowest in Canada (13%) and the UK (14%) and highest in Sweden (38%).

Dr Lindsay Forbes from King's College London and joint lead author of the study says in a press release:"The UK stood out in this study. A high proportion of people said that not wanting to waste the doctor's time and embarrassment might stop them going to the doctor with a symptom that might be serious. The traditional British 'stiff upper lip' could be preventing people from seeing their doctor. We need to support people to make the right decisions about their health and increase awareness of the age-related risk."

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