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Would you know how to spot cancer symptoms? Recent research suggests you would, as awareness campaigns over the past few years have increased the public’s attention to the symptoms of lung and bowel cancer.

Published in a special edition of the British Journal of Cancer, the findings coincide with the NHS’ claims that early diagnosis of cancers can really save lives. Lung cancer accounts for 13% of all cancer cases and 22% of all cancer deaths in the UK. Similarly, bowel cancer is the UK’s second biggest cancer killer, with around 41,000 people diagnosed each year.

The Be Clear on Cancer campaign was initially launched in 2010 by the Department of Health to raise awareness of cancer symptoms, and is now a joint Public Health England programme of activity. Through this campaign, 42% of the public are now aware that blood in their stools could be a sign of bowel cancer, up from 27%. The same campaign has also created a rise in visits to GPs by 29% for bowel cancer symptoms and 63% for lung cancer concerns. Awareness of the symptoms of lung cancer, such as a cough or having a hoarse throat, also rose from 41% to 50%.

The Be Clear on Cancer campaigns includes a range of TV advertisements and leaflets to emphasise the symptoms for a range of different cancers. One of the more recent campaigns, launched in January 2015, urges people to visit their doctor if they suffer from heartburn most days during a three week period, which could be a sign of oesophageal or stomach cancer. Around 67% of people diagnosed with oesophago-gastric cancers at the earliest stage survive for at least 5 years, a figure that drops to just 3% for those diagnosed at a late stage.

Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK’s director of early diagnosis, told PM Live: “The UK’s cancer survival lags behind many other comparable countries, and the stage at which people are diagnosed with the disease plays an important role in this. When cancer is diagnosed at an early stage, treatment is more likely to be successful, so it is vital we understand how to speed up and improve diagnosis.

“We’re learning more about just how complex the issues are and this research adds valuable detail. Campaigns like Be Clear on Cancer have improved the understanding of signs and symptoms and encouraged people to go to their GP when they spot them. We also need to ensure doctors can effectively interpret the symptoms and then refer patients on as quickly as possible. We’re seeing progress across the UK, and research is helping to provide answers about what to do next.”

Researchers have also looked into how death from other cancers could be delayed if they are picked up quicker, suggesting that there is a need for more public awareness of cancer symptoms. Looking at breast cancer, they discovered that 280 breast cancer deaths could be delayed by more than 5 years for women over 75 if they are diagnosed at the same stage as women aged 70-74.

“We’ve been able to give an idea of the number of cancer deaths that could be postponed if there were no inequalities in when people were diagnosed across different groups, be that age, gender or socio-economic status,” claims Mark Rutherford, from the University of Leicester. “Highlighting the number of lives we can prolong gives further weight to the importance of improving early diagnosis. We need to improve the system to diagnose cancer earlier for everyone, regardless of where they live, their income or how old they are.”

Early diagnosis is key when it comes to improving survival, and a major part of this is making the public aware of what to look out for in terms of symptoms. According to NHS England, patients with possible early signs and symptoms should visit their GP in order to be referred for tests so that any necessary treatment can begin quickly. Early diagnosis of cancer is also being written into the NHS’ new five year strategy for cancer.

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