Influences of cancer symptom knowledge, beliefs and barriers on cancer symptom presentation in relation to socioeconomic deprivation: a systematic review

BMC Cancer. 2015 Dec 23;15:1000. doi: 10.1186/s12885-015-1972-8.


Background: People from lower socioeconomic groups have worse survival outcomes for cancer, which in part reflects later-stage disease at diagnosis. The mechanisms underlying delayed cancer symptom presentation in lower socioeconomic groups are not well understood.

Methods: Systematic review of studies of actual or anticipated symptom presentation across all tumour sites. Included studies measured socioeconomic group, symptom presentation and one or more of the following variables: cancer symptom knowledge, beliefs about cancer, barriers/facilitators to symptom presentation.

Results: A total of 60 studies was included. Symptom knowledge overall was lowest and actual presentation time was longest in lower socioeconomic groups. Knowledge for specific symptoms such as lumps and bleeding was good and encouraged timely symptom presentation, in contrast to non-specific symptoms which were not well recognised. The combination of fearful and fatalistic beliefs was typically associated with later presentation, especially in lower socioeconomic groups. Emotional barriers such as 'worry what the doctor might find' were more frequently reported in lower socioeconomic groups, and there was evidence to suggest that disclosing symptoms to family/friends could help or hinder early presentation.

Conclusions: Poor symptom knowledge, fearful and fatalistic beliefs about cancer, and emotional barriers combine to prolong symptom presentation among lower socioeconomic groups. Targeted interventions should utilise social networks to improve knowledge of non-specific symptoms, challenge negative beliefs and encourage help-seeking, in order to reduce avoidable delays and minimise socioeconomic group inequalities.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Early Detection of Cancer / psychology
  • Fear
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice*
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / psychology*
  • Patient Acceptance of Health Care / psychology*
  • Socioeconomic Factors