Background: Delay in symptomatic presentation leading to advanced stage at diagnosis may contribute to poor cancer survival. To inform public health approaches to promoting early symptomatic presentation, we aimed to identify risk factors for delay in presentation across several cancers.
Methods: We surveyed 2371 patients with 15 cancers about nature and duration of symptoms using a postal questionnaire. We calculated relative risks for delay in presentation (time from symptom onset to first presentation >3 months) by cancer, symptoms leading to diagnosis and reasons for putting off going to the doctor, controlling for age, sex and deprivation group.
Results: Among 1999 cancer patients reporting symptoms, 21% delayed presentation for >3 months. Delay was associated with greater socioeconomic deprivation but not age or sex. Patients with prostate (44%) and rectal cancer (37%) were most likely to delay and patients with breast cancer least likely to delay (8%). Urinary difficulties, change of bowel habit, systemic symptoms (fatigue, weight loss and loss of appetite) and skin symptoms were all common and associated with delay. Overall, patients with bleeding symptoms were no more likely to delay presentation than patients who did not have bleeding symptoms. However, within the group of patients with bleeding symptoms, there were significant differences in risk of delay by source of bleeding: 35% of patients with rectal bleeding delayed presentation, but only 9% of patients with urinary bleeding. A lump was a common symptom but not associated with delay in presentation. Twenty-eight percent had not recognised their symptoms as serious and this was associated with a doubling in risk of delay. Embarrassment, worry about what the doctor might find, being too busy to go to the doctor and worry about wasting the doctor's time were also strong risk factors for delay, but were much less commonly reported (<6%).
Interpretation: Approaches to promote early presentation should aim to increase awareness of the significance of cancer symptoms and should be designed to work for people of the lowest socioeconomic status. In particular, awareness that rectal bleeding is a possible symptom of cancer should be raised.