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NHS logoThere are around 330,000 new cancer cases in the UK every year – with breast, lung, prostate, and bowel among the most common types. But research shows that diagnosing cancer early is one of the most effective ways to improve survival rates.

With that said, we’ve partnered with the NHS to explore the importance of early cancer diagnosis and when you should contact your GP.

In January 2024, the NHS launched a national campaign, Reducing Cancer Barriers, as part of its Long Term Plan, which aims to increase the number of cancers detected at an early stage from around half to three quarters by 2028.

Reducing Cancer Barriers aims to address the barriers that people face when it comes to seeking help, as well as the fears surrounding cancer diagnosis. It’s also intended to raise awareness about the importance of checking for bodily changes that could be a sign of cancer.

The NHS hopes that anyone experiencing potential signs of cancer will feel encouraged to contact their GP and, therefore, increase their chances of an early diagnosis.

In this article we’ll also hear from David Day, 71, and Mary Forester, 66, about their experiences of cancer diagnosis and the importance of getting symptoms checked early.

Why is early cancer diagnosis important?

Why is early cancer diagnosis important

Catching cancer early is important for several reasons. In terms of health outcomes, cancer which hasn’t had time to spread or grow too large, is more likely to result in successful treatment.

For example, research shows that…

  • More than nine in 10 people with bowel cancer survive the condition for five years or more if it’s diagnosed at the earliest stage. However, if diagnosed at the most advanced stage, this falls to one in 10 people.

  • Over 90% of women diagnosed with breast cancer in its early stages survive the condition for at least five years; compared to 15% of women diagnosed in the more advanced stages.

  • Around 70% of patients with lung cancer survive for at least a year if diagnosed in the early stages. This drops to just 5% if diagnosed in the most advanced stages.

David, 71, from Cambridge was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2014 after he noticed blood in his urine. David immediately spoke to his GP and luckily, his cancer was caught early, before it was able to spread elsewhere. He has now been cancer-free for 10 years.

He says, “I believe it’s because my cancer was caught early that I’ve been able to keep my bladder and I’m now living a normal, happy life – travelling the world and spending time with my family.”

What are the signs and symptoms of cancer?

Signs and symptoms of cancer vary, and some can be harder to notice, such as…

  • Breathlessness
  • Frequent infections
  • Unexplained night sweats
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Unexpected or unexplained bruising
  • An unexplained lump anywhere on the body
  • Unexpected or unexplained bleeding (such as bleeding from your bottom, or blood when you cough or in your vomit)
  • Blood in your poo
  • Blood in your pee – even just once

Signs and symptoms that last for three weeks or more…

  • A cough, or a change in an existing cough
  • Tummy trouble, such as discomfort or diarrhoea
  • Feeling tired and unwell and not sure why
  • Heartburn or indigestion
  • Unusual, pale or greasy poo
  • Unexplained pain or discomfort

You can find out more about the signs and symptoms of cancer on the NHS website. We also have specific guides on ovarian, breast, bowel, lung, and prostate cancer which you might find useful.

Remember, it’s probably nothing serious, but finding cancer early makes it more treatable and can save lives.

What can help increase the chances of diagnosing cancer early?

What can help increase the chances of diagnosing cancer early

Now we know the importance of early diagnosis, what things can you do to increase the chances of catching cancer early? We’ll cover some ideas below…

Know the signs and symptoms of cancer

It’s difficult to detect cancer early if you’re not sure what to look out for. So, it’s worth educating yourself on some of the potential signs of cancer.

This is particularly important because many early signs of cancer can be subtle, synonymous with other conditions, and, in some cases, unnoticeable, unless you specifically look for them.

Remember, while in the majority of cases, these symptoms won’t be the result of cancer, it’s still best to be vigilant and get checked out.

Mary Forester, 66, from Newbury was diagnosed with leukemia in September 2020. She explains some of the symptoms she experienced which she now knows were signs of cancer.

She says, “About a year before getting diagnosed I had a tooth infection that kept coming back. A few months later, I tripped and fell on my knee, which caused a lot more bruising than you’d expect from a fall; and then I began to feel completely exhausted.

“At the time, you don’t necessarily think things like a tooth infection, bruising, or fatigue are necessarily anything to worry about. You never imagine that you might have cancer, but all these things individually can be a sign. It’s so important to understand the symptoms, be in tune with your body, and get checked out if you notice any changes.”

Mary is now cancer-free after being discharged in March 2021.

Perform regular body checks

As well as knowing the signs of cancer, it’s important to check in with yourself regularly and take note of any changes – something which research shows we aren’t doing enough.

For example, despite expert advice to routinely check breasts for any unusual changes – such as lumps, swelling, dimpling, and nipple discharge – research shows that 46% of UK women frequently forget to do this, and one in 10 women have never checked their breasts.

This guide from the NHS covers everything from how to perform body checks at home – including lumps, moles, and discoloured skin.

Remember, when it comes to your body, you know best, so don’t hesitate to speak to your GP practice if you notice anything that isn’t normal for you – even if it seems minor.

Take part in screening programmes available to you

In the UK, there are cancer screening programmes available for bowel, breast, and cervical cancers.

Screenings are designed to detect cancers early, even before symptoms have appeared, which can radically improve survival rates. For example, statistics reveal that since the cervical cancer screening programme was introduced in the 1980s, the number of cases has dropped by around 7% each year.

Health screenings are only effective if people use them – and research shows that despite their availability, many people still aren’t taking part. In 2022, one-third of people who were sent a bowel cancer screening kit in England didn’t complete it. In response, the NHS launched a new campaign to encourage people to send their tests back which has significantly improved participation rate.

With all this considered, it’s important to attend any screenings that you’re invited to. To find out more about UK cancer screening programmes, including eligibility and what to expect, have a read of our article; 11 important health checks for over 50s. Here, you’ll also find information on general health checks, including cholesterol and blood pressure tests, which can be useful for detecting other health problems and assessing your general risk of developing cancer.

It’s important to note that while people are invited to cancer screenings based on their age, you can still request appointments outside of this if you have any concerns.

When should you contact your GP practice?

When should you contact your GP practice

Since early cancer diagnosis significantly increases the chances of successful treatment, it’s important to contact your GP as soon as you notice anything out of the ordinary for you.

If you’re worried about taking up your GP’s time or of what they might say, remember that this is what GPs are there for, and you don’t have to approach any health worries alone.

Equally, the NHS reassures us that the majority of people referred for further tests by their GP find out that their symptoms aren’t a result of cancer. Either way, finding out sooner is always better.

If healthcare demand is particularly high in your area and you’re struggling to get an appointment with your GP, your surgery should be able to accommodate you. This might include arranging telephone appointments, online consultations, and appointments during office hours and weekends.

It’s also important to go back to your GP if your symptoms don’t go away or get worse – even if you’ve had tests that come back as normal or you’re still on a waiting list to have tests.

David says, “If you find anything slightly different in your body, it’s so important to speak to your GP as soon as you can to get it checked out. Time is of the essence with these things and the earlier you speak to someone, the better.

“I appreciate it’s not always easy to get to the GP, but if something isn’t right, it’s important to keep approaching them”.

Mary adds, “I’ve always been one of those people who’d tough it out where I could – I hated going to the doctors because I didn’t want to be a burden. I’d always been pretty healthy too, so it didn’t really occur to me that I needed to see my GP because I never imagined my symptoms could be a sign of something more serious.

“Because of my experience, my attitude has entirely changed and I’m now quick to call the doctor if I notice anything unusual. It’s so important not to put off getting checked.”

Final thoughts…

The Reducing Cancer Barriers campaign is part of the NHS’ Long Term Plan to increase the number of cancers detected at an early stage from around half to three quarters by 2028. Early cancer diagnosis can significantly improve health outcomes, so it’s important to speak to your GP if you have any concerns.

To find out more about the campaign and ways to increase your chances of diagnosing cancer early, head over to the NHS website.

You might also want to check out the general health section of our website. Here, you’ll find information on everything from bone and lung health to tips for cutting down on alcohol.

What are your main takeaways from this article? We’d be interested to hear from you in the comments below.