Sounding the Alarm on Cancer Symptoms

Early detection and treatment of cancer is crucial in order for the spread of the disease to be kept to a minimum. In order for cancer to be detected as early as possible, it is important that the public is aware of “alarm” symptoms so that these symptoms can be investigated as soon as possible. However, it is unclear how aware the public is these symptoms. A recent study in the United Kingdom looked into how familiar British older adults are with these alarm symptoms.

Researchers surveyed 1,724 adults age 50 and better about medical symptoms they’d experienced in the past three months. Included in a list of 17 symptoms were 10 cancer “alarm” symptoms that had been identified and publicized across Europe and the United Kingdom (for example, in the Be Clear on Cancer campaigns in England). The alarm symptoms included unexplained cough or hoarseness, persistent change in bowel habits, persistent unexplained pain, persistent change in bladder habits, unexplained lump, a change in the appearance of a mole, a sore that does not heal, unexplained bleeding, unexplained weight loss, or persistent difficulty swallowing. For those symptoms that the study participants reported experiencing, those affected were asked what they think caused it, how serious they thought the symptom was, and whether they’d consulted a doctor about the symptom.

Of the study participants, 53 percent had experienced at least one cancer alarm symptom, with persistent cough (20 percent) and persistent change in bowel habits (18 percent) being the most common. Of those 915 individuals who experienced an alarm symptom, only 2 percent attributed cancer as a likely cause. An unexplained lump was the symptom most commonly attributed to cancer, although this was only suggested by six of the 87 individuals who experienced this symptom. Non-cancer physical causes such as infections or arthritis were the most common explanations for most of the symptoms. The other major explanation of symptoms was external causes such as age or a change in diet.

Of the cancer alarm symptoms, 23 percent were rated as serious. The symptom least often rated as serious was the change in the appearance of a mole (12 percent), and the symptom most frequently rated as serious was unexplained pain (41 percent). Even though a very small percentage of participants attributed a symptom to cancer, 59 percent had contacted their physician about the alarm symptom that they experienced. This ranged from 47 percent of those who saw a change in the appearance of a mole, to 72 percent of the individuals who had persistent unexplained pain. Because this study was conducted in the United Kingdom, all participants had access to health care.

It appears that awareness of warning signs for cancer remain low, even after public health education campaigns such as those in the United Kingdom. Although many individuals did consult with a doctor after experiencing one or more of the cancer alarm symptoms, there were still large percentages who did not, despite the availability of health care through the United Kingdom’s national health care system. In light of cancer being the largest broad cause of death in the United Kingdom, it seems likely that greater awareness of cancer alarm symptoms could lead to a higher percentage of individuals consulting a doctor about these symptoms. Although cancer awareness campaigns currently exist, greater efforts and different strategies appear necessary to raise awareness of the symptoms that can lead to as early a detection of cancer as possible.


Whitaker KL, Scott SE, Winstanley K, Macleod U, et al. Attributions of cancer ‘alarm’ symptoms in a community sample. PLoS ONE. (2014). DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0114028


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