What prompts help-seeking for cancer 'alarm' symptoms? A primary care based survey

Br J Cancer. 2016 Feb 2;114(3):334-9. doi: 10.1038/bjc.2015.445. Epub 2016 Jan 21.


Background: Encouraging prompt help-seeking for cancer symptoms can help shorten the patient interval and improve timely diagnosis. We explored factors associated with help-seeking in a primary care sample reporting 'alarm' symptoms.

Methods: A questionnaire was mailed to 9771 adults (⩾ 50 years of age and no cancer diagnosis) and 3766 (39%) returned it. Our sample included 1732 adults reporting at least one cancer 'alarm' symptom; with a total of 2726 symptoms. Respondents completed questions relating to help-seeking, demographic and symptom characteristics (e.g., type, knowledge, concern, interference and attribution).

Results: Over a third of people who reported a cancer 'alarm' symptom in the past 3 months had not sought help from a doctor. An unexplained lump (odds ratio (OR) 2.46, 1.42-4.26) and persistent unexplained pain (OR 1.79, 1.19-2.69) were associated with increased likelihood of help-seeking. Symptom concern (OR 3.10, 2.19-4.39) and interference (OR 3.06, 2.15-4.36) were associated with an increased likelihood of seeking help independently of symptom type. People who were not working (OR 1.41, 1.09-1.83), were married/cohabiting rather than single (OR 1.38, 1.10-1.74) and were older (60-69 years) rather than younger (50-59 years; OR 1.33, 1.02-1.75) were more likely to have sought help.

Conclusions: Our findings highlighted symptom type and symptom characteristics as key drivers of help-seeking. We also found that there may be specific demographic groups where encouraging help-seeking might be warranted.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Delayed Diagnosis*
  • Employment / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Help-Seeking Behavior
  • Humans
  • Logistic Models
  • Male
  • Marital Status / statistics & numerical data*
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Odds Ratio
  • Patient Acceptance of Health Care / statistics & numerical data*
  • Primary Health Care*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Symptom Assessment / psychology
  • Symptom Assessment / statistics & numerical data