Stiff upper lip may be causing high rate of UK cancer deaths

Jan 30, 2013

British fear of wasting the doctor's time may be stopping cancer patients getting early treatment

THE BRITISH stiff upper lip may be responsible for high rates of death among British cancer patients who tend to delay a visit to their doctor until it is too late to get effective treatment, new research suggests.

After talking to almost 20,000 people over the age of 50 in the UK and five other "high-income" countries - Australia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Sweden - the researchers concluded that "cultural inhibitions" may be causing a higher rate of death among Britons who contract the disease.

A "high proportion" of those interviewed in the UK said factors such as "not wanting to waste the doctor's time" and "embarrassment" would prevent them from consulting a doctor with a symptom that might be serious. One in three Britons said they worried about wasting a doctor's time compared to less than one in ten in Sweden, says the study by King's College London, published in the British Journal of Cancer.

There were 157,000 deaths from cancer in the UK in 2010, with more than three-quarters occurring in those aged 65 and over. Cancer survival rates are lower in the UK than in any of the other nations surveyed, even though they all have similarly good access to health facilities.

The Times says the study clearly suggests that a fear of "bothering" doctors and a reluctance to discuss intimate health issues could be a key factor in why "cancer survival rates in the UK are lagging behind much of Europe". Only 30 per cent of people in Britain survive for a year after being diagnosed with the disease, compared with 44 per cent in Sweden," the paper says.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph Harry Mount says he is not surprised the study was carried out among the over-50s, because the stiff upper lip has "almost disappeared" among Britons under the age of 40. Mount defends the stiff upper lip, saying it "strains out the self-obsession in conversation".

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Disqus - noscript

Most cancer awareness campaigns have prioritised messages around symptom awareness to overcome lack of knowledge as a barrier to early detection. Now that awareness of symptoms is generally much higher, there is a
need to target the more emotional barriers that remain. Corporate Culture has recently been working with the London Health Improvement Board (LHIB), led by
the Mayor of London’s office, on its Get To Know Cancer initiative which focuses on overcoming the ‘fear and fatalism’ barriers identified in the KCL report as the major reasons that cancer is not identified early enough.

The LHIB approach links strongly with behaviour change
theory; campaigns should overcome the specific barriers of the target audience. The LHIB campaign directly targets the barriers identified by the KCL report (and others before it) through:

· a campaign identity that aims to normalise
cancer conversation and discussion, thereby tackling the ‘stiff upper lip’ attitude mentioned in the KCL report

· a creative look and feel that is accessible and
‘non-scary’ to overcome the fear barrier

· showing real Londoners who have survived / are
surviving cancer – as proof that cancer is not necessarily a death sentence

· focusing the campaign messaging on presenting
cancer as a disease that is ‘treatable, even beatable’ especially when caught early. This stresses the importance of seeing a GP as soon as people have any concerns and reinforces the clear link between early detection and survival.

If this campaign approach is applied at a national level, it
could have a major impact on reducing the gap between the UK and other countries in early detection and treatment.

Just maybe the medical profession might like to look at how it communicates and serves the patients, rather than saying its all the patients fault.