Frequency of 'warning signs of cancer' in Norwegian general practice, with prospective recording of subsequent cancer

Fam Pract. 2013 Apr;30(2):153-60. doi: 10.1093/fampra/cms065. Epub 2012 Oct 23.


Background: Early diagnosis of cancer is an important challenge in general practice. Symptoms are the most common starting points.

Objective: To assess the association between symptoms presented and subsequent cancer.

Design: A cohort study of all patients seen consecutively by GPs. Prospective recording of cancer diagnosis, new cancer or new recurrence.

Setting: Two hundred and eighty-three general practice surgeries and 10 working days.

Method: During patient consultations, GPs registered seven focal symptoms and three general symptoms, commonly considered as warning signs of cancer (WSC). Follow-up 6-11 months later with registration of any subsequent diagnosis of cancer was done.

Results: Of 51 073 patients, 6321 (12.4%) had recordings of 7704 WSC. During a median follow-up period of 8 months, 263 patients were diagnosed with cancer and 59 of them with recurrence of a previously diagnosed cancer. Of the cancer patients, 106 (40%) had presented one or more WSC during a preceding consultation. Examined symptoms had likelihood ratios for cancer from 1.5 to 8.2 and positive predictive values (PPVs) from 0.8% to 3.8%. Limited to older age groups, PPVs were a little higher. General symptoms were rarely associated with cancer unless a focal symptom had been recorded as well. Multiple symptoms increased the probability of cancer.

Conclusion: 12.4% of GP patients presented with WSC. A general symptom may have cancer diagnostic value, but usually, only when it occurs along with a focal symptom. PPV of any single symptom is low, and decisions about referral require additional information.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Chi-Square Distribution
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Early Detection of Cancer / methods*
  • Early Detection of Cancer / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • General Practice*
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Logistic Models
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasm Recurrence, Local / diagnosis
  • Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Norway
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Prospective Studies
  • Young Adult