Published: 26 February 2016

Research collaboration between Surrey and UCL reveals an ‘all-clear’ cancer diagnosis can have unintended consequences

A cancer false alarm could put people off checking out cancer symptoms they develop in the future, according to a University of Surrey cancer research expert and scientists from University College London (UCL).

"Having an all-clear now doesn’t guarantee that you won’t develop cancer in the future, especially as one in two people in the UK will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime," said Dr Katriina Whitaker, Senior Lecturer and Lead in Cancer Care at the University.

More than 80 per cent of patients with potential cancer symptoms are given the all-clear after investigations. But according to research published by the British Journal of General Practice in February 2016, having a false alarm might discourage people from seeking help, even years later, if they notice possible symptoms of the disease again.

Dr Whitaker and researchers from the Health Behaviour Research Centre at UCL (University College London) carried out interviews with men and women, aged 50 and over, reporting cancer ‘alarm’ symptoms (e.g. persistent change in bladder habits, rectal bleeding). They found that patients may delay seeking help for new or recurrent symptoms if they feel ‘over-reassured’ following a previous false alarm or felt under-supported at the time by the healthcare system.

Over-reassurance led patients to think that they did not need professional help as they had previous experience to understand the problem. If patients felt unsupported and believed they had been treated dismissively, some had concerns they might appear to be a hypochondriac or making a fuss if they had future symptoms checked out.

Dr Whitaker said: “There is a careful balance between not worrying people who have been given the all-clear, with making sure they are empowered to seek help if symptoms return or they experience new symptoms. There may be simple steps that health care professionals can take to ‘safety-net’ people, such as giving support and information during the investigation period.”

Lead author Dr Cristina Renzi, a Cancer Research UK health expert at UCL, said: “Patients who go to their GP with symptoms are obviously relieved to find out that they don’t have cancer. But, as our research shows, it’s important that they don’t have a false sense of security and understand they should still seek help if they notice new or recurrent symptoms.”

The researchers concluded that providing appropriate, balanced information to patients who have a cancer false alarm, including making sure they don’t feel foolish about having sought help, might encourage them to check out any future symptoms earlier. When cancer is diagnosed at an early stage, treatment is more likely to be successful.

The findings indicated that over-reassurance could lead to patients, and sometimes clinicians, linking any future symptoms to the earlier all-clear.

Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK’s director of early diagnosis, said: “It’s vitally important that anyone with possible cancer symptoms gets them checked out as soon as possible, and that includes people who have had a false alarm in the past. You’re not wasting your doctor’s time and may well save time in the long run - most cancers are picked up after patients seek help about symptoms and acting promptly on these can mean treatments are simpler and more effective. More research is needed into the best ways to ensure patients are never discouraged from talking to their GP about symptoms, even after receiving an all-clear.”

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