For the under 40’s a cancer diagnosis is often not considered a serious concern and some doctors are ignoring the symptoms and concerns of patients.
Dame Deborah James, popularly known as “Bowel Babe”, died aged 40 on 28th June 2022. She was an active cancer campaigner who dedicated the last years of her life to raising awareness of bowel cancer after she was diagnosed with the disease at age 35.
Like so many young people, Dame Deborah’s GP had ignored her request for further scans multiple times. However after a private scan, she was diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer. Her experience and life highlight the current state of cancer management in young people.
‘Never Too Young’ To Get Cancer
Research published by the charity Cancer Research UK show that the incidence rate of all cancers in younger people (under-40s) is 4.3% compared to 36% in over-75s. The risk of cancer gradually increases with age before it significantly increases after 55.
The association of cancer with old age often means young people are not as prudent in seeking medical help when faced with “alarm-bell” symptoms—and even when they visit a GP, their concerns are often dismissed or they are misdiagnosed with a less serious condition.
A survey by Bowel Cancer UK reported that around 50% of young people did not know they were at risk of developing cancer before the diagnosis. The report also found that 4 in 10 younger people had to schedule at least 3 GP consultations before being referred for further scans by a specialist.
Healthcare resources are limited, and it only makes sense to channel them to people who most likely need them. But what does this mean for people who develop cancer at a young age?
Children in the UK Being Diagnosed too Late With Cancer
Research has been published showing that the UK lags behind other nations when diagnosing childhood cancers. The international study involved 3,176 children with Wilms’ tumour (the most common children’s kidney cancer) in 24 countries between 2002 and 2011.
The average size of tumours was larger in the UK, which researchers said indicated British children were being diagnosed later then children in our countries.
Study leader Professor Kathy Pritchard-Jones, of the UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, said early detection increased a child’s chances of “cure at least cost”.
Dr Pritchard-Jones added:
“Despite the NHS target to diagnose 75 per cent of all cancers at ‘early stage’ one or two by 2028, this research provides important evidence that we have a problem with later diagnosis of childhood cancers in the UK compared to other European countries.
“This affects the success rate of first-line therapies, which have been optimised to make them safer and more effective and reduce use of treatments likely to cause long-term health problems.
“Promoting early diagnosis is one of the best ways to improve outcomes for children with cancer in our country.”
Need for Improvements to Improve Cancer Diagnosis in the Young
Following Dame Deborah’s death, the NHS reported that it witnessed a tenfold increase in bowel cancer search queries. According to NHS chief Amanda Pritchard, “People often don’t feel comfortable speaking about their cancer diagnosis and treatment, but Deborah bravely speaking out about her personal journey has prompted thousands more people to check the symptoms.
“We must now continue Deborah’s fantastic work in her honour … Talking about cancer saves lives. So, our message to you is – don’t be prudish about poo; get checked out if you have worrying signs or symptoms.”
Early detection of warning signs can be life-saving. Cancer Research UK says a GP should ideally refer a patient to a specialist within 28 days. And if diagnosed with cancer, treatment should start within a month. Failure to do this could warrant a GP negligence claim.
But to achieve a timely diagnosis of cancers, the government needs to make sure “the NHS has the workforce and equipment it so desperately needs,” says Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of Cancer Research UK.
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