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Wed 11 Jan 2023

Delays in diagnosis for deadly cancers leading to catastrophic outcomes

New data released on Less Survivable Cancers Awareness Day shows that symptom awareness is as low as 1% in Wales.

  • Close to a third of people in Wales have a friend or loved one who has delayed seeking medical advice when experiencing symptoms of a less survivable cancer. Of those, 66% were told by medical professionals that this delay had an impact on their treatment options.

The Less Survivable Cancers Taskforce warns that late diagnosis can drastically affect survival chances.

The Less Survivable Cancers Taskforce (LSCT) has released new data on Less Survivable Cancers Awareness Day to highlight the critical importance of symptom awareness for early diagnosis of these cancers. 

The taskforce represents six less survivable cancers, lung, liver, brain, oesophageal, pancreatic and stomach, with an average five-year survival rate of just 16%. Together, these less survivable cancers make up nearly half of all common cancer deaths in the UK.

A UK-wide survey carried out by the LSCT has found that awareness of the symptoms of these deadliest cancers is dangerously low across the country. Only 1% of respondents in Wales were able to correctly identify all symptoms of oesophogeal cancer from a list presented to them. Symptom awareness for liver and stomach cancers fared slightly better at 2% and 4% respectively while only 9% of respondents knew all the symptoms of lung cancer. 11% of people could spot the signs of pancreatic cancer while knowledge of brain tumour symptoms was higher but still only 18%. 

Even more concerningly, when asked whether they had a friend or loved one who had delayed seeking medical advice when experiencing symptoms which were later shown to be caused by a less survivable cancer, a massive 35% of respondents in Wales said yes. Sadly, of these cases, 66% were told by medical professionals that this delay had an impact on their treatment options.

In 2022, the LSCT reported that many patients with a less survivable cancer will only be diagnosed after an emergency admission to hospital or an emergency GP referral after symptoms have become severe. These late diagnoses account, in part, for the catastrophic prognoses for thousands of people each year as patients with cancers that are diagnosed in an emergency suffer significantly worse outcomes.

Judi Rhys MBE, Chief Executive of Tenovus Cancer Care and Chair of the Less Survivable Cancers Taskforce Wales subgroup, said: 

The low symptom awareness of the six less survivable cancers is deeply concerning. It’s something which urgently needs to be improved, as well as addressing the need for more screening programmes and preventative work. We worked hard to call for the introduction of a lung cancer screening project in Wales – the biggest cancer killer in the country – and we’re pleased this will finally be implemented in 2023. We urge anyone with symptoms to seek medical help at the earliest opportunity, caught early, all these cancers can be treatable. We back the LSCT’s calls for UK governments, including the Welsh Government, to commit to increasing survival rates for less survivable cancers to 28% by 2029.”

Dr Dai Samuel, Consultant Hepatologist and Clinical Lead for Gastroenterology at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital, said: 

Diagnosing cancers that affect the GI tract, such as oesophageal, stomach, liver and pancreatic cancers, can be difficult because they present either with very vague symptoms or with none at all. We need to improve our screening strategies for patients at risk of these cancers, but also ensure that those with early symptoms have timely access to diagnostic services to ensure they get the best change of cure or good treatment outcomes. We need to change the public fear of cancer and reinforce that our treatments are becoming more effective day by day."

Professor Tom Crosby, Consultant Oncologist and National Cancer Clinical Director for Wales, said:

The symptoms of many of the less survivable cancers can be difficult to spot or even non-existent until the later stages of the disease. Despite this, public awareness and professional education of the common signs is crucial if we are going to tackle the problem of late diagnosis. 

“We desperately need to increase the capacity of diagnostic services to ensure the existing capacity is more efficient and effective through one-stop diagnostic hubs and that access is directly available to primary care services. As well as this, we need more emphasis and investment in research for diagnosis, treatment and prevention of these cancers if we’re going to improve patient outcomes including survival and experience.”

Typical symptoms will vary but red flags for less survivable cancers could include any of the following; indigestion, abdominal pain, unexplained weight loss, a loss of appetite, difficulty swallowing, a persistent cough, unexplained tiredness, headaches or nausea. The most important thing is to seek medical help swiftly if you notice anything unusual for you.

If you or someone you love has been affected by cancer, our free cancer Support Line is there for you. It’s for anyone affected by cancer and our experienced nurses can offer advice on diagnosis, treatment, side-effects, and anything else that’s on your mind. Our Support Line is your door to all of our support services, so to find out how we can help, simply call 0808 808 1010 free of charge.

If you or someone you love has been affected by cancer, our free Support Line is there for you. Just call 0808 808 1010