A new campaign taking a radically different approach to detecting cancer early for patients, when it is easier to treat, has been announced today by NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard.
Running across TV, radio, and social media from tomorrow, the campaign is the first to focus on tackling the fear of cancer rather than specific symptoms.
The key message is that if you think something is wrong it is always better to get checked out to put your mind at rest, or to get treatment that maximises your chances of a good outcome.
The NHS Long Term Plan committed to increasing the number of cancers detected at an early stage one or two from half to three quarters by 2028.
NHS staff have been checking record numbers of people for cancer. Latest figures show that the number of people getting checked for cancer increased by over half a million (512,110) in one year between December 2020 and December 2021.
Speaking ahead of the launch, NHS chief executive, Amanda Pritchard, said that people should continue to come forward for these vital checks, adding that it was important for people to try to set their mind at ease if they have worrying symptoms by getting checked without delay.
It comes alongside new research showing that nearly six in 10 people (56%) say a cancer diagnosis is their biggest health fear, above other illnesses including heart disease and COVID-19.
Almost two thirds (63%) of those surveyed said dying was their biggest cancer fear, with more than one in three (37%) worried about being a burden on family and friends and over another third (36%) worried about the impact of chemotherapy or other treatments.
While the majority of people knew catching cancer earlier makes it more treatable, over two fifths (42%) said they would ignore symptoms, wait to see if anything changed, look for answers online or speak to family and friends before seeing their GP.
Launching officially on Wednesday, a new advert will show a man who is worried about his symptoms carrying a jack-in-the-box around with him, which he winds up as he goes about his day. When he eventually gets checked and discovers he doesn’t have cancer, a consultant opens the jack-in-the-box to show it is empty.
NHS bosses and cancer charities are urging people not to delay “lifesaving” checks, highlighting nine in ten of those checked turn out not to have cancer but that it is better to know so that people can get treated early when chances of survival are highest.
NHS chief executive, Amanda Pritchard, said: “We know that the prospect of a cancer diagnosis can be daunting for people and that is exactly why we are launching this potentially lifesaving campaign – we want to allay people’s fear about cancer and encourage them to get checked without delay.
“We know that many people don’t want to burden or bother anyone with their health concerns, but we would always prefer to see you sooner with a cancer that is easier to treat, than later with one that isn’t.
“NHS staff have pulled out all the stops to ensure cancer was prioritised throughout the pandemic with over half a million people starting treatment over the last two years and record numbers of people now being referred for checks and tests.
“So, the NHS is here for you – don’t let cancer play on your mind – get checked without delay”.
NHS cancer director, Dame Cally Palmer, said: “Despite cancer remaining a priority during the pandemic, with referrals at record levels for more than 10 months and more than half a million people starting treatment in the last two years, we have seen fewer people than expected come forward for lifesaving checks which is why were are launching this campaign – the first of its kind – that looks to tackle people’s worries head on and support earlier diagnosis”.
“The fear of cancer is completely understandable but please don’t let worries and concerns about treatment or potentially bad news prevent you from coming forward – and help us to help you”.
NHS clinical director for cancer, Professor Peter Johnson, said: “A key part of this new campaign is encouraging people to be aware of any changes in their body, and not to hold back from getting them checked.
“Most people who come forward and get tested for cancer find out they don’t have it, but whatever the result, the NHS wants you to know that we are here for you and finding out sooner is always better.
“It might be nothing at all, it might be something else the NHS can help you with, but if it is cancer then finding it early makes it much more treatable, and it could save your life”.
Health and Social Care Secretary, Sajid Javid said: “Having lost my father to cancer I know how worrying the prospect of a cancer diagnosis can be for people and their families.
“We want to tackle these fears head on and the message of this campaign is clear – it’s always better to get checked than delay. Coming forward can give you much needed certainty, and the earlier we catch cancer, the more lives we can save.
“We’re committed to making sure people get the care and treatment they need, which is why I’ve declared a national war on cancer with and we are developing a new 10 year plan focussing on innovative treatments and early diagnosis”.
Phil Kissi, 64 from London who has recovered from prostate cancer, said: “In 2006, I was watching a TV programme that said Black men were at higher risk of prostate cancer. Although I didn’t have any symptoms, I had a feeling that something wasn’t right.
“My diagnosis changed my perspective on life, and I re-evaluated what was important to me. After my surgery, I decided to go into athletic training and help young people who might not have had the chance to fulfil their potential otherwise.
“If you’re worried about cancer, contact your GP practice. It’s probably nothing serious but even if it is, getting your diagnosis earlier can give you more treatment options and ultimately, a better chance of success”.
Dr Ian Walker, director of policy, information, and communication, at Cancer Research UK, said: “Sometimes a little bit of concern or fear about our health can prompt us into action, but it’s vital that this fear doesn’t get to a level that stops us picking up the phone or walking into the surgery.
“We’ve spoken to a lot of people who’ve noticed changes to their health but weren’t sure what to do, or needed help with the next steps. We encourage anyone in this situation to get in touch with their GP practice. They have nothing to lose but could have everything to gain because finding cancer at an early stage can make all the difference”.
Dr Anthony Cunliffe, Clinical Adviser for Primary Care at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: “People might put off seeing their doctor if they’re worried that their symptoms could be cancer – the specially trained nurses and advisors on Macmillan’s support line often hear about the toll a potential cancer diagnosis is taking on their mental health. But, for most people, there’s another explanation for their symptoms.
“However, we know that early diagnosis of cancer can improve prognoses and save lives, and anyone worried about potential cancer symptoms should contact their GP as soon as possible. Don’t think it’s not important or put it off. Your GP will make time to listen to your concerns”.
Jane Lyons, CEO of Cancer52, which works with charities supporting people with rare and less common cancers, said: “Worrying about having cancer is completely understandable and getting checked out a scary experience, so it is good to know that nine out of ten people who do come forward don’t have cancer.
“But if you are one of the people who does have a cancer, especially a rare or less common cancer where symptoms might not be so obvious or well known to people or health professionals, then it is usually better to get an earlier diagnosis where there can be more treatment options and better outcomes.
“And with rare and less common cancers, which account for more than half of cancer deaths in England, it can take more persistence and more visits to GPs to get an accurate diagnosis so it’s even more important to get in touch if you think something is wrong”.
Cancers are much more likely to be treated successfully if caught at an early stage.
More than 9 in 10 bowel cancer patients will survive the disease for more than five years if diagnosed at the earliest stage. Similarly, 92.8% of women diagnosed with the earliest stage ovarian cancer survive the disease for at least five years compared to around 13.3% for women diagnosed with the most advanced stage of the disease.
Not all the symptoms of cancer are easy to spot. The NHS is encouraging people to contact their GP practice if they experience any of the below symptoms:
- Tummy trouble, such as discomfort or diarrhoea for three weeks or more, or
- Blood in your pee – even just once;
- Unexpected or unexplained bleeding;
- Unexplained pain that lasts three weeks or more;
- An unexplained lump; or
- A cough for three weeks or more (that isn’t COVID-19)
Other signs and symptoms to prompt contact to your GP practice if experienced for three weeks or more include:
- Unexplained weight loss;
- Feeling tired and unwell and not sure why
- Heartburn or indigestion
- Unusual, pale or greasy poo