CANCER is probably the thing my patients fear most – well it was, until coronavirus came along.
It’s understandable, one in two of us will get it at some point.
Bowel cancer runs in my family, my dad’s sister and mum both died of the disease in their early 60s.
The older you get, the higher your risk.
But as highlighted by Kelly Smith who's heartbreaking story features on tonight's Panorama episode, Britain’s Cancer Crisis, sometimes cancer strikes at a young age.
Cancer crisis looms
Cancer has the nickname the ‘Big C’ for good reason. Every year around 165,000 people die of cancer, it’s one of the biggest killers.
And now we’re facing a growing cancer crisis, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
In fact, experts have warned that – in a worse case scenario – it could lead to an extra 35,000 deaths in a year.
The biggest issue I have experienced as a GP is fewer patients coming to us with signs that could be early cancer.
It means fewer people are being referred to see specialists on an urgent two-week wait referral.
I think it’s safe to assume that people are still noticing worrying symptoms.
So the scary reality is, it means fewer people are coming forward, and that’s a big concern.
The sooner cancer is caught the better your chance of surviving it, and avoiding invasive and lengthy treatment.
If cancer tells you it’s there – act
Admittedly it is easier to catch some cancers earlier than others.
Bowel, breast and testicular cancers often do us one favour by showing us they are there.
Other cancers like ovarian and pancreatic can be silent, rarely giving a clue until tumours are advanced.
If cancer is trying to tell us it’s there, we need to act. Even better, regularly check for signs of cancer – do monthly breast or testicular self-examinations and attend all NHS screening appointments for cervical, breast and bowel cancers.
I get patients who are embarrassed and scared. Others think they are wasting my time or feel silly for making a big deal about it.Trust me, your GP wants to hear from you.
Don’t be shy
Recently, chatting to Laura Whitmore on my podcast Steths, Drugs & Rock ‘n’ Roll, she told us she thought she had found a lump in her breast, and felt silly going to her doctor when it turned out to be a spot.
I would much rather my patients came in and asked me, only for me to tell them it’s only a spot.
I’d rather that, then end up telling them it’s cancer later down the line.
If you find something you think might be cancer, don’t wait for your GP to guess.
We would rather you tell us, spell it out.
It’s actually very satisfying for a GP to be able to completely reassure their patient that they need not be concerned about their symptom being cancer, but if you don’t tell us what’s on your mind, we might not figure it out.
One common concern people have is feeling embarrassed.
Society still makes so many things taboo – vaginas, testicles, poo, pee, the list goes on.
When you are in my room I am happy for you to say whatever is necessary to be understood.
Some of my patients who don’t speak English as their first language may resort to swear words if that is the only way they know to describe or explain, and that is fine – whatever it takes to get to the root of the problem.
In general there are a few cancer warning signs it’s worth knowing:
- Lump in your breast, testicle or any new or abnormal lump
- Coughing for more than three weeks, chest pain or breathlessness
- Changes in bowel habits – blood in your poo, diarrhoea, or constant bloating
- Signs of blood in your urine, poo, when you cough, vomit, between periods or after sex or after the menopause
- Difficulty passing urine
- Moles – any changes in shape, colour, if they itch or appear more raised
- Unexplained weight loss or loss of appetite
- Unexplained tiredness, or profuse sweating at night
- Difficulty swallowing, hoarse voice or persistent heartburn
- Sores that won’t heal on the skin or in the mouth
Never too young
I get asked by patients when they should start regularly checking their bodies – the answer is, now.
If you have boobs or testicles, start now and make it a habit, regardless of your age.
If you have kids, check your bodies in front of them and explain why – it will make it normal to them.
Cancer doesn’t have to be the scary killer we tend to think it is, in most cases if you catch it early enough it can be treated.
So put your fears to one side, the NHS is open for you so use us!
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