Stiff Upper Lip Syndrome Leading to UK Cancer Deaths

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By Hannah Osborne | January 30, 2013 9:17 PM EST

British people do not visit the doctor because they are embarrassed (Reuters)

The traditional British 'stiff upper lip' attitude to illness is putting thousands of people at risk of cancer, according to new research.

Compared to other comparable countries, people in the UK worry far more about wasting their doctors' time so do not seek medical attention when early symptoms of cancer occur.

A joint study, led by King's College London and UCL and published in the British Journal of Cancer, found that embarrassment and a desire to avoid time wasting were the biggest reasons people in the UK do not visit the doctor.

The study, in partnership with Cancer Research UK and Ipsos MORI, forms part of the International Cancer Benchmarking Partnership, a global collaboration looking at cancer survival.

In comparison to Australia, Canada, Sweden and Norway - countries that have similar heathcare systems - the researchers found the UK and Denmark had the lowest rate of survival for lung, breast, bowel and ovarian cancers.

Researchers were looking to determine why the rates of survival were so different. They found there was little difference in all countries in terms of awareness of cancer symptoms.

However, there were significant differences in presenting symptoms to doctors. Over a third of people in the UK (34 percent) were concerned with wasting doctors' time, compared with nine percent in Sweden.

Fifteen percent of Brits were embarrassed about seeking medical attention for a symptom that might be serious. Six percent said the same in Denmark.

Stiff upper lip

Study author Lindsay Forbes, from King's College London, said: "The UK stood out in this study. A high proportion of people said that not wanting to waste the doctor's time and embarrassment might stop them going to the doctor with a symptom that might be serious.

"The traditional British 'stiff upper lip' could be preventing people from seeing their doctor."

Awareness of symptoms was also much lower in older people in the UK - 14 percent compared with 38 percent in Sweden.

"We need to support people to make the right decisions about their health and increase awareness of the age-related risk," Forbes said.

Sara Hiom, director of patient engagement and early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK, said: "It's encouraging to see that people in the UK know as much about cancer symptoms as people in Australia, Canada or Scandinavia, and that overall, people surveyed had generally positive beliefs about cancer outcomes.

"But the research highlights that people in the UK are more worried and embarrassed about seeing their doctor with a symptom that might be serious compared to those in other countries.

"Cancer Research UK and others are working hard to understand and address these potential barriers to early presentation and encourage people to tell their doctor if they have noticed something different about their body.

"More work also needs to be done to tackle the poor awareness that cancer risk increases with age."

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