Researchers have called for new approaches to boost awareness of the significance of cancer symptoms after finding that 21% of patients had delayed seeing a doctor for at least three months following their onset.

The study, by scientists at King's College London and published in the British Journal of Cancer, also stress that approaches to promoting awareness must work for people of the lowest socioeconomic status, as their research showed that this delay in seeking medical help was associated with deprivation but not age or sex.

Looking at data from 1999 cancer patients reporting symptoms, those with prostate (44%) and rectal cancer (37%) were most likely to delay and patients with breast cancer least likely to delay (8%). 

Urinary difficulties, change of bowel habit, fatigue, weight loss, loss of appetite and skin symptoms "were all common and associated with delay", the researchers noted. 

The most common reason for not seeing the doctor was a failure to recognise symptoms as serious (28%), and this was associated with a doubling in risk of delay, while embarrassment, worry about what the symptoms mean, being too busy to go to the doctor and worry about wasting the doctor’s time were also found to be strong risk factors for delay but much less commonly reported (under 6%).

Cancer Research UK's Sara Hiom says that, given the relationship between early diagnosis and improved chances of survival, no one with any symptoms should be waiting three months before booking an appointment.

“It’s important that we continue investing in our work with both the National Health Service and Public Health England on the Be Clear on Cancer campaigns which are successfully raising awareness of these cancer symptoms and encouraging people to see their doctors," she noted.