Background: Early diagnosis is a key focus of cancer control because of its association with survival. Delays in diagnosis can occur throughout the diagnostic pathway, within any one of its three component intervals: the patient interval, the primary care interval and the secondary care interval.
Discussion: A key focus for help-seeking research in patients with symptoms of cancer has been the concept of 'delay'. The literature is plagued by definitional and semantic problems, which serve to hinder comparison between studies. Use of the word 'delay' has been criticised as judgemental and potentially stigmatising, because of its implications of intent. However, the suggested alternatives (time to presentation, appraisal interval, help-seeking interval and postponement of help-seeking) still fail to accurately define the concept in hand, and often conflate three quite separate ideas; that of an interval, that of an unacceptably long interval, and that of a specific event which caused delay in the diagnostic process. We discuss the need to disentangle current terminology and suggest the term 'prolonged interval' as a more appropriate alternative. Most studies treat the patient interval as a dichotomous variable, with cases beyond a specified time point classified as 'delay'. However, there are inconsistencies in both where this line is drawn, ranging from one week to three months, and how, with some studies imposing seemingly arbitrary time points, others utilising the median as a divisive tool or exploring quartiles within their data. This not only makes comparison problematic, but, as many studies do not differentiate between cancer site, also imposes boundaries which are not necessarily site-relevant. We argue that analysis of the patient interval should be based on presenting symptom, as opposed to pathology, to better reflect the context of the help-seeking interval, and suggest how new definitional boundaries could be developed.
Summary: The word 'delay' is currently (conf)used to describe diverse conceptualisations of 'delay' and more mindful, and discerning language needs to be developed to enable a more sophisticated discussion. By stratifying help-seeking by presenting symptom(s), more accurate and informative analyses could be produced which, in turn, would result in more accurately targeted early diagnosis interventions.