NHS Chief urges people to come forward for life-saving cancer checks ahead of new campaign

The new head of the NHS in England has today encouraged people with potential cancer symptoms to come forward for lifesaving checks.

Ahead of a new campaign launching next week, NHS England chief executive, Amanda Pritchard said that the NHS is open and ready to treat people, and urged anyone with potential cancer symptoms to come forward.

Research shows that three in five people (60%) are concerned about burdening the NHS, with half (49%) saying they would delay seeking medical advice compared to before the pandemic[1].

Launching on Monday, the next phase of the ‘Help Us, Help You’ campaign from NHS England,with support from Public Health England, will use TV and digital adverts, posters and social media to raise awareness of symptoms of cancers in the abdominal area, urological cancers, and lung cancer.

The ads will feature people with a range of symptoms, such as prolonged discomfort in the tummy area or a persistent cough, and aim to persuade people experiencing these to contact their GP.

Around a quarter of a million people were checked for cancer in June, the second highest number on record, and treatment numbers have been back at usual levels since March. More than 27,000 people started treatment for cancer in June, a 42% increase on the same time last year.

The NHS chief stressed that there could be tens of thousands more people who are not coming forward, either because they’re unaware of common cancer symptoms, or because they feel they would burden the NHS.

Despite abdominal and urological cancers accounting for nearly half (44%)[2] of all cancer diagnoses and two in five (41%)[3] cancer deaths in England, new figures from the NHS show that many people are unaware of common warning signs – which could prevent them seeking help.

Three in five (63%) people said they didn’t recognise discomfort in the abdominal area for three weeks or more as an indication of cancer.

Alongside abdominal and urological cancers, the campaign will also highlight common signs of lung cancer – after research has found that two in five people don’t recognise that a persistent cough for more than three weeks as a sign of the disease. There is also concern the symptom could easily be confused with Covid-19.

NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard said:

“We know that thousands of people could be risking their lives by delaying medical attention for cancer symptoms.

“We are open and ready to treat people with potential cancer symptoms. From Monday, this campaign will remind people of the signs and symptoms to look out for and encourage them to get checked if something isn’t quite right.

“Thanks to the hard work of NHS staff, we are back on track with cancer referrals, diagnosis and treatment so, whether you or a loved one has a routine appointment, or a potential cancer symptom, please don’t delay and come forward to get yourself checked – we would rather see you sooner when any cancer would be easier to treat.”

“It’s incredibly important that people recognise the common symptoms that can signal a cancer diagnosis – and it’s vital that they take action by making an appointment with their GP, that could ultimately save their life.”

Dame Cally Palmer, Director of the NHS Cancer Programme, said:

“Cancer diagnosis and treatment has been an absolute priority throughout the pandemic and continues to be so. Over the last few months we’ve seen record demand for cancer services and it’s encouraging that so many people came forward for potentially life-saving checks in June.

“We want to build on this success, and make sure that people who might be experiencing symptoms are not afraid or anxious about coming forward. Our message is clear – if you are experiencing any worrying symptoms, please see your GP.”

Symptoms that could be possible signs of abdominal or urological cancers include:

  • Discomfort in the tummy area for three weeks or more
  • Diarrhoea for three weeks or more
  • Blood in your pee – even just once

People are being reminded to contact their GP if they have any of these symptoms. People should also speak to their GP if they notice any other unusual changes, such as a lump in the tummy area, post-menopausal bleeding, or unexplained weight loss, as these can also be signs of cancer.

For lung cancer, symptoms can include:

  • A cough for three weeks or more that isn’t Covid
  • Chest infections that keep coming back
  • Coughing up blood

Professor Peter Johnson, National Clinical Director for Cancer, said:

“It’s important to get checked as soon as possible if you notice something that isn’t normal for you.  Most symptoms will not be from cancer, but if they are, seeing someone quickly will give you the best chance of diagnosis at an earlier stage when cancers are easier to treat.

“This is particularly important where symptoms are less obvious: some uncommon cancers can be hard to pin down, which can mean they take longer to diagnose and treatment time is lost.

“Thanks to the hard work of NHS staff, we are back on track with cancer referrals, diagnosis and treatment so, whether you or a loved one has a routine appointment, or a potential cancer symptom, please don’t delay and come forward to get yourself checked – we would rather see you sooner with a cancer that is easier to treat than later than a cancer that isn’t as easy to treat.”

Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said:

“This important campaign is coming at a crucial time when tens of thousands of people have yet to be diagnosed with cancer. If you’ve noticed an unusual change in your health, don’t be tempted to put it down to getting older or to a pre-existing condition – contact your GP. If you have trouble getting through to the practice at first, do keep trying.

“And when you speak to your GP – whether that’s face to face, on the phone or by email – if you’re worried that you might have cancer, mention that to them and attend any follow up tests your GP thinks are needed. If you do need to visit in person but you have concerns about COVID-19, speak to a healthcare professional.”

Jane Lyons, CEO of Cancer52 said:

“It’s great to see this campaign to encourage people who think they might have a cancer symptom to get in touch with their GP.  And especially important to encourage people who have symptoms like prolonged discomfort in the tummy area which can be indicators of cancers like ovarian or womb cancer. The chances that most of the time these symptoms don’t turn out to be cancer.  But if they are, the sooner people get some help the better, so please do take that first step.”

Dr Lydia Makaroff, Chief Executive of Fight Bladder Cancer said:

“We are delighted to see this most-needed campaign to increase the awareness of urological symptoms. Finding cancer early makes it more treatable, so we urge anyone with these symptoms to speak to their GP. If you suspect that you may have cancer you are likely to be experiencing a whirlwind of emotions. Whatever the outcome, remember that you are not alone. The NHS and charities like us are here to support you.”

Background

The Help Us Help You advert which will start airing on TV from Monday 16. Images of the campaign materials and footage of the adverts is available on request.

Abdominal cancers include throat (oesophageal), stomach, bowel (colorectal), pancreatic, ovarian and womb (uterine) cancers. Urological cancers include prostate, kidney and bladder cancers.

The number of abdominal and urological cancers diagnosed each year have increased by 18% in England over the past 10 years (2009 – 2018).

Symptoms that could be possible signs of abdominal and urological cancers include:

  • Persistent diarrhoea
  • Prolonged discomfort in the tummy area
  • Persistent constipation
  • Continuous nausea/feeling sick
  • Blood in your pee – even just once

If you have any of these, tell your GP. You should also speak to your GP if you notice any other unusual changes, a lump in the tummy area, post-menopausal bleeding, or unexplained weight loss, as these can also be signs of cancer.

In addition to the symptom of a cough for three weeks or more, other symptoms of lung cancer include:

  • Chest infections that keep coming back
  • Coughing up blood
  • A long-standing cough that gets worse
  • An ache or pain when breathing or coughing
  • Persistent breathlessness
  • Persistent tiredness or lack of energy
  • Loss of appetite or unexplained weight loss

Referrals and treatment levels for cancer are back to pre-pandemic levels with latest data showing more than 230,000 people were checked in June – the second highest number of patients seen in a single month on record.

Over 27,000 started treatment in June with the overwhelming majority starting within a month (95%)

There have been more than 2.9 million referrals for cancer since March last year. The NHS has prioritised cancer care during the coronavirus pandemic and the latest figures show that hospitals carried out more than two cancer treatments for every patient they treated for COVID-19.

NHS chiefs are now encouraging people to come forward for a check that they may have put off during the pandemic.


Notes and references

[1] Respondents were interviewed on the Kantar omnibus 30 June to 2 July. The omnibus surveys a representative sample of the population aged 16+. The questions were asked in England among a total sample of 2,002

[2] Number of abdominal and urological cancers diagnosed in England in 2018. Cancer Analysis System accessed 20/07/21. Abdominal cancers include oesophageal (ICD10 C15), stomach (C16), bowel (colorectal) (C18 – C20), pancreatic (C25), ovarian (C56, C57, sub-set of C48), and uterine (C54, C55). Urological cancers include prostate (C61), Kidney (C64 – C66, C68) and Bladder (C67)

[3] Public Health England (2020) Cancer registration statistics: cancer mortality in England, 2018. Last accessed August 2021