Cancer – Earlier Diagnosis

The campaign is designed to address the key barriers to people seeking help, the fear around cancer diagnosis and increase awareness of the importance of body vigilance when it comes to bodily changes that could be a sign of cancer. The NHS Long Term Plan committed to increasing the number of cancers detected at an early stage one or two from half to three quarters by 2028.

When cancer is diagnosed early, treatment is more likely to be successful. However, early in the pandemic, the number of people coming forward to their GP with potential cancer symptoms dropped. While we’re now seeing much higher levels of referrals and 540,000 people have started cancer treatment since March 2020, over 30,000 fewer people have come forward for treatment than we’d have expected.

The campaign will target men and women over the age of 50 and from C2DE socio-economic groups as these people are most likely to experience a cancer diagnosis including Black and South Asian audiences, who are already at risk of health inequalities. It will also target friends and family members to ensure they encourage loved ones to contact their GP practice if they are worried something could be cancer.

Primary Messaging

  • Don’t let the thought of cancer play on your mind, if something in your body doesn’t feel right contact your GP practice.
  • To rule out cancer, your GP may refer you for tests. Whatever the result, your NHS is here for you.
  • Most people who go for tests find out it’s not cancer. Finding out sooner is always better.

Secondary Messaging

  • Contact your GP practice if something in your body doesn’t feel right or you experience any of the symptoms below
  • Signs and symptoms vary, and some can be harder to notice, such as:
    • Breathlessness
    • Frequent infections
    • Unexplained night sweats
    • Unexplained weight loss
    • Unexpected or unexplained bruising
    • For three weeks or more:
      • A cough or a change in an existing cough
      • Tummy trouble, such as discomfort or diarrhoea
      • Feeling tired and unwell and not sure why
      • Heartburn or indigestion
      • Unusual, pale or greasy poo
  • Other signs and symptoms include:
    • Unexplained pain or discomfort for three weeks or more
    • An unexplained lump anywhere on the body
    • Unexpected or unexplained bleeding (such as bleeding from your bottom, or blood when you cough or in your vomit)
    • Blood in your poo
    • Blood in your pee – even just once
  • For more information on cancer signs and symptoms go to
  • It’s probably nothing serious, but finding cancer early makes it more treatable and can save lives. If your GP suspects cancer, they’ll refer you for further tests

New survey data released reveals that while the majority of people knew catching cancer earlier makes it more treatable, over two-fifths (42%) said they would ignore symptoms, wait to see if anything changed, look for answers online or speak to family and friends before seeing their GP.

Key Facts and Statistics
New survey data of 2,000 respondents shows:

  • Over 70% of the public are afraid of being diagnosed with cancer, with cancer coming out as the top health condition people are most afraid of.
  • Almost two-thirds (63%) of the public cited dying as their biggest fear around cancer, with being a burden on family and friends (37%) and having chemotherapy or other treatments (36%) as their other biggest fears.
  • When having a serious bodily change or a feeling something was wrong, 42% of people would either look for answers online, speak to family and friends, completely ignore it or wait to see if anything changed, before speaking to their GP.
  • Over 20% of people said they wouldn’t go to the GP if they noticed a serious bodily change as they were hoping it would go away on its own, whilst almost a third (31%) said they either wouldn’t want to find out bad news or waste the NHS’s time.
  • Over a third (36%) of the public said finding out bad news was what they feared most about cancer tests, whilst another 32% cited the wait for the results as what they feared most.
  • Almost 80% agreed that catching cancer early makes it more treatable.
  • Whilst 50% of the public think being told they had cancer would be the most difficult part of going for tests for cancer.

Cancer fear & barriers to accessing a GP
In 2018, research revealed four key barriers were identified as impacting timely presentation in a cancer journey:

  • Lack of body vigilance: There was a general lack of body vigilance, the inability to recognise the change in the body. This is exacerbated by the fact that pre-existing or ambiguous health conditions can mask cancer symptoms, especially as they can be vague and there are some areas of limited symptom knowledge;
  • Perceptions of the NHS: The perceptions (and reality) of the NHS create a significant barrier to presentation. Before presenting, there is a perception that this is going to be a hard and slow process;
  • Opaque diagnosis journey: There is a lack of visibility of the diagnosis journey, in particular pre-diagnosis. The audience isn’t clear about what happens if they think they have cancer, and this is further complicated by limited communication during their diagnosis journey; and
  • Pervading fear: All of this is underpinned by fear. This is a nuanced and multi-faceted fear: fear of knowing, fear of the unknown, fear of death, fear of vulnerability, fear to voice concerns, fear of the impact on their family, fear of treatment and fear of diagnostic testing.

In 2021, research shows that these barriers still exist, but have been further compounded by the pandemic, and have evolved, adding new dimensions and complexity:

  • Bodies have changed generally: changes that could be related to cancer are obscured by other bodily changes brought about by changing lifestyles during COVID (for example, many have gained weight);
  • Access barriers have increased: heightened perception of NHS not having capacity drives a sense of lack of control and greater use of self-diagnoses / delaying presentation; and
  • Completely unknown journey: increased alienation from journey / expected journey due to unfamiliarity with connecting with doctors digitally in the COVID context drives fear of the unknown. Fear of being isolated: The sense of fear is further amplified with a fear of isolation in the pre-diagnosis and post-diagnosis journey – adding new depth to the fear barrier.