Cancer Patients 'Want More Tests For Early Detection And Peace Of Mind'

Potential cancer patients would like their symptoms to be checked out much sooner than current NHS guidelines suggest.

With the prospect of a cancer diagnosis hanging over them, 88% of people wanted further investigation, even if their symptoms carried just a 1% risk of indicating cancer.

The findings are from a study, published in Lancet Oncology, carried out by scientists from Bristol University, the University of Exeter Medical School and the University of Cambridge.

The 3,649 participants, who were all aged over 40, were asked to fill in a total of 6,930 "vignettes" - graphic analyses of symptoms which indicate particular types of cancer.

Of those, 88% opted for further investigation, even if there was only a low risk that the symptom could indicate cancer.

There was only a slight rise in those who opted for investigation when the risk factor was higher than 1%.

There are no fixed thresholds in the UK, but in practice, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) guidelines suggest that patients need to have symptoms which indicate a 5% risk or higher before further tests for most cancers are carried out.

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Dr Jonathan Banks, of Bristol University, said: "This large study provides a clear and comprehensive account of public preference for investigation for cancer. It shows for the first time that there's a strong preference for diagnostic cancer testing, even if the risk is very low.

"This desire far exceeds what is actually being offered by the NHS and we hope the findings can help policy-makers and doctors in shaping guidelines and practice."

They said they wanted to have more tests to give them peace of mind and to help in the early detection of their potential illness.

Patients should be fully involved in the decision-making process with their GP and in talking about the risk of cancer, the study concluded. Their preferences should also be noted to help referrals become more effective, it was suggested.

A shorter trip to get to the testing centre, a family history of cancer and higher household income were all factors which made it more likely for people to want more testing.

The study found that people aged 60 were more likely to opt for investigation than those aged 40, while those aged over 70 - the oldest group - were least likely to want further testing.

Co-author Professor Willie Hamilton, of the University of Exeter Medical School, who is also a practising GP, is clinical lead for the 2012/15 update of the Nice referral guidelines for suspected cancer.

He said: "One main reason for the UK's poor performance on cancer is that fewer patients with symptoms obtain an early diagnosis. Currently, the NHS isn't offering cancer diagnostic testing at the level patients requested in this study. How this gap can be narrowed is a critical and compelling decision for the NHS as a whole."