Taking charge of our own health to beat cancer

8th December 2021

Cancer remains the leading cause of death worldwide and getting an early and accurate diagnosis is the single most effective way we will have any significant impact on the number of people who survive the disease.

That’s because cancer that’s diagnosed at an early stage, when it’s not too large and hasn’t spread, is much more likely to be treated successfully.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a terrible impact on cancer diagnosis in the UK. In October, 49 cancer charities, including Cancer Research UK (CRUK), united under “One Cancer Voice” to write to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid.

They demanded an urgent response to the unprecedented challenge being faced by cancer services to improve detection, diagnosis, and treatment, and prevent survival rates from slipping backwards.

In July alone, figures show that there were around 10,200 fewer people referred for urgent suspected cancer compared with what would have been expected if it hadn’t been for coronavirus.

The “red flag” warning signs - knowing what to look for is key

It is absolutely vital people understand what they need to look for and that we help raise awareness of the common symptoms of many cancers so people can spot if they may be suffering from the disease as early as possible and get it checked out.

A recent study from experts at the University of Exeter and University College London, which was published in BMJ Quality & Safety, found that six in 10 patients with “red flag” cancer symptoms in England are not referred to a specialist by their GP quickly enough.

They used a database of anonymised patient records – including hospital referrals and treatment, cancer diagnoses and postcodes – which covered seven per cent of the UK population.

The study looked at nearly 49,000 patients who consulted their GP with one of the six “red flag” warning signs for cancer that should warrant referral – blood in the urine, a breast lump, difficulties swallowing, iron-deficiency, and postmenopausal or rectal bleeding. Blood in the urine is a symptom of bladder cancer and postmenopausal bleeding can be a sign of endometrial cancer.

In total, 48,715 consultations took place where an urgent referral for suspected cancer should have been recommended but just 40 per cent (19,760) were urgently referred within two weeks of seeing their GP.

Of those who were referred, 10 per cent were diagnosed with cancer within the next year and 3.6 per cent of those not referred were told they had cancer in the following 12 months.

We know diagnosing cancer is not always straightforward because sometimes the symptoms can be non-specific but I would urge everyone to take notice of their own bodies, know what is “normal” for them, and get anything unusual – for them – checked out.

How we’ll turn the tide

According to Cancer Research UK (CRUK), one in two people in the UK will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. That’s a shocking statistic when you consider that around four in 10 UK cancer cases could be prevented every year with lifestyle changes including stopping smoking, losing weight, better diet, exercise and minimal alcohol.

The NHS England waiting list for routine hospital treatment has also soared since the pandemic struck the UK last March.

Almost half a million people were checked for cancer in June and July, among the highest numbers on record, as the health service attempts to catch up on people who have been missed over the last 18 months.

But nearly 20,000 fewer people than normal with cancer have not yet been diagnosed due to the backlog, according to analysis by the Institute for Public Policy Research and the CF healthcare consultancy.

Diagnosis is often hindered by the availability and cost of appropriate tests and today, seven in 10 people are still subjected to invasive and often unnecessary procedures to get a diagnosis. 

It is essential non-invasive, quick tests like our ADXBLADDER urine diagnostic are utilised in a better way if we are to help more people and quickly turn the tide on the diagnosis backlog caused by the pandemic in this country.