NHS campaign urges patients to see GP with possible cancer symptoms

18 August 2021

The NHS in England has launched a new campaign encouraging patients to come forward for a GP appointment if they have a range of symptoms which could be cancer.

Advertisements from NHS England (NHSE) and Public Health England (PHE) will feature people with a range of symptoms such as prolonged discomfort in the tummy area or a persistent cough, and try to persuade people experiencing these to contact their GP.

NHSE said around a quarter of a million people were checked for cancer in June 2021, the second highest number on record. Treatment numbers have been back at usual levels since March 2020, with more than 27,000 people starting treatment for cancer in June. This is a 42% increase on the same time last year.

However, research carried out on behalf of NHS England in June showed that 60% of people are concerned about burdening the NHS, and 49% said they would delay seeking medical advice compared to before the pandemic.

NHS England also expressed concern that two in five people did not recognise that a persistent cough for more than three weeks could be a sign of lung cancer, and that the symptom could easily be confused with Covid-19. The research also showed that 63% people did not recognise discomfort in the abdominal area for three weeks or more to be an indication of cancer.

Recently appointed NHS England Chief Executive Amanda Pritchard said thousands of people could be risking their lives by delaying seeking medical help from their GP. She highlighted how new ways of working included "mini cameras that patients can swallow to check for bowel cancer and Covid-friendly cancer drugs that patients can take at home".

She said it was concerning that research suggested three in five people don't want to bother the NHS, especially during the pressures of the Covid-19 pandemic, while others are not aware of common cancer symptoms. She added: "People should not feel like they cannot trouble the NHS, which is open and ready to treat people.”

NHS England and NHS Improvement (NHSEI) National Clinical Director for Cancer Prof Peter Johnson said although GPs were "incredibly busy", and many consultations were taking place by telephone, there was scope for seeing patients in person. He said: “If you've got these kinds of symptoms, you probably do need to see somebody face to face and all our GPs can see people face to face”.

About 56% of appointments with GPs are being delivered in person and leaders said if a physical examination is necessary "it will be facilitated". Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) Vice Chairman Dr Gary Howsam said though that some cancers can be hard to diagnose as they may crossover with other less serious conditions. He said: “What we need is for GPs to have better access to diagnostic tests in the community and training to use them appropriately so that our decision to refer can be as informed as it possibly can be”.

NHS England figures show that the cancers most likely to go unrecognised account for 44% of all cancer diagnoses and two in five deaths from cancer in England. Experts believe abdominal cancers, throat, stomach, bowel, pancreatic, ovarian and urological cancers, prostate, kidney and bladder cancers are the most likely to go undetected.

The next phase of the “Help Us, Help You” campaign will use TV and digital adverts, posters and social media to raise awareness of symptoms of cancers in the abdominal area, urological cancers, and lung cancer.

Campaign resources are available here.