People are being urged to get to know their bodies and seek medical advice if they think is anything wrong, after research revealed many are reluctant to react to potential cancer symptoms.

According to a 'Cancer Consciousness' poll by insurance firm AXA, the majority of Brits (91%) have had direct experience of seeing loved ones deal with cancer, yet only 28% said they would make an appointment to see their GP immediately if they noticed something unusual for their body that could be a symptom of cancer.

AXA PPP healthcare chief medical officer Dr Gary Bolger said: "A key to the early detection of cancer is knowing what ‘normal’ feels like for your body so you are able to identify a significant change."

"People who find signs or symptoms of cancer should not be afraid to see their doctor for advice straight away," he explained. "It really is a case of the sooner the better.”

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  • A lump or swelling anywhere on your body needs checking out

    AXA’s research found that 79% of people were able to correctly identify breast lumps as a potential indicator of cancer. But a lump or swelling in any part of the body, including the armpit, neck, abdomen, groin or chest area, is worth having checked by a doctor.

  • Talk about your toilet habits

    Diarrhoea or changes in bowel habits are most likely to be caused by a stomach bug or eating something that disagrees with you. But if you’re noticing changes that have lasted more than a few days, for example if your bowel movements are looser for three weeks or more, or you notice any blood when you’ve been to the toilet, then make an appointment to get it checked out.

  • Sores and ulcers should disappear quickly – investigate them if they don’t

    A lot of people get mouth ulcers when their immune system is low or they’re stressed. Generally they’re nothing to worry about and, as the lining of the mouth regenerates itself every couple of weeks, shouldn’t last long. But any ulcer that hasn’t healed after three weeks merits attention from your doctor or dentist. The same goes for any sore or spot that lasts for several weeks without healing – get it checked by a doctor.

  • Difficult passing urine – not just an inevitable consequence of age

    Many men find it more difficult to pass urine as they get older, needing to go more often or urgently or being unable to go when they need to. These problems are usually caused by an enlarged prostate, which is a common condition that is not in itself cause for concern. But occasionally these symptoms can be a sign of prostate cancer – either way, men experiencing these symptoms should see their GP. Similarly, while urinary tract infections are the most likely cause of women having pain or difficulty passing urine, this should pass relatively quickly. If it doesn’t, then any sudden urges to pass urine or the need to go more often should be discussed with your doctor.

  • Lost weight without dieting?

    It’s natural for most people’s weight to fluctuate over time. But if you haven’t instigated any changes in your diet or exercise regime and have obviously lost weight, then talk to your doctor. And if you’re experiencing heavy night sweats you should seek medical advice – these don’t always have a sinister cause, and can be brought about by certain infections or medications, but they’re worth checking.

  • Coughing up blood needs to be checked out

    If you’ve coughed up any blood, you should see your doctor, regardless of the amount of blood or frequency. It can be a sign of lung cancer, so needs to be checked out.

  • Coughs and sore throats

    Most of us will experience coughs or croaky voices at some point, normally when we’ve had a cold. But as with many other changes to your body, anything that hasn’t gone away after three weeks or so should be investigated.

  • Educate yourself on what to look out for

    AXA’s research found women were more likely than men to identify key cancer warning signs, including breast lumps, changes in bowel habits and irregular moles. But for both men and women, ensuring you’re aware of symptoms to keep an eye out for is important. Knowledge is power: understanding what you’re looking for means you can any changes checked out quickly.

  • Know your own body

    AXA’s research found only 6% of men and 3% of women check their bodies daily for anything unusual. But understanding what’s normal for your own body is essential if you’re to spot when anything has changed. If you do notice changes that are persisting for a long time, or causing you pain and discomfort, then see your GP.

  • Don’t put off seeing the doctor!

    A sizeable 61% of people AXA spoke to admitted they’d delayed seeing their doctor when they spotted changes that could be potential flags for cancer. But early detection of any problems can make a huge difference if any treatment is then needed. Similarly, if changes are harmless your doctor will be able to reassure you. Overall, the sooner you go to see your GP, the better.

Dr Bolger added: “It’s regrettable that too many people present themselves to their GP or even to A&E with cancer in its late stage. This makes the cancer harder to treat and treatment less successful."

The research found that around one in 10 of the 2,033 people questioned had experienced potential signs or symptoms of cancer, from changes in bowel habits to blood in their urine, in the last six months.

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Yet fewer than half of these people had sough medical advice from their GP – with the exception of those reporting lumps in their breast, where two thirds of whom (68%) had visited their doctor.

Of those polled cited difficulty in getting an appointment (30%), being too busy (27%) or fear of what they may find out (25%) as reasons for the potential delay.