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A cancer false alarm could discourage people from checking out future symptoms

By Susanne Meisel, on 6 February 2015

As I have discussed here, delays in a diagnosis of cancer are one reason why the UK fares worse in cancer survival than other countries . This has led to campaigns like this one to remind the public to go and get symptoms checked out early. However, most people who go and have tests will ultimately get the ‘all-clear’- in other words they will not be diagnosed with cancer. This is of course good news, however having experienced a false alarm might have some unintended consequences. It may impact on mood and anxiety levels long after the all-clear has been given. What’s more, a false alarm may influence future symptom appraisal because it may lead people to think that it’s just another false alarm, so they won’t bother to go to the GP again.

Our researchers looked at all available research studies which reported information on false alarms and subsequent symptom attribution or help-seeking published between 1990 and February 2014 to see whether this assumption was true. They included only studies that looked at adult patients who presented with symptoms and did not include studies where additional tests were required after routine cancer screening, because the effect of a false alarm may be different in this context.
Our researchers found 19 national and international studies that met their criteria. Six of these were carried out in the UK, three in other European countries, six in the USA, three in Canada and one in Australia. The most frequently studied cancer was breast cancer, followed by gynaecological, bowel, testicular, head and neck, brain cancer and multiple cancer sites.

Our researchers found that, as predicted, people often explained a delay in seeking help for a symptom due to being overly reassured by a previous false alarm. This was true across different types of cancer. Interestingly, a previous false alarm often resulted in normalising novel symptoms and attributing them to the previous benign diagnosis even in the case of symptoms occurring months or years after the false alarm. This finding is concerning, because having had an all-clear diagnosis in the past does not guarantee that you won’t develop cancer in the future. Therefore, it is really important to remain vigilant and go and get checked every time a new symptom appears, or a symptom won’t go away.

Feeling ‘foolish’ and under-supported the first time help was sought for a symptom was another important theme that emerged from the review. Patients who felt dismissed, and who felt that they did not get enough explanation about what to do if the symptoms did not go away or if new symptoms appeared were less likely to seek help in the future.

However, there were some limitations to the review – for example our researchers might have missed some studies as in the majority of cases they were not directly investigating the effects of false alarms; moreover, the ones they did find were based on small number of patients who were interviewed after they had been diagnosed with cancer . Therefore, we are planning to do some more research in the future which will specifically focus on the topic.

These findings highlight how important it is to provide balanced information to patients when they are investigated for possible cancer symptoms, making sure not to cause unnecessary anxiety and at the same time avoiding false reassurance. Furthermore, the results show that it is important to take patients’ concerns seriously and encourage patients to see a doctor promptly if they have new possible cancer symptoms or if symptoms don’t go away even if they have been checked before. Early diagnosis will only be successful if patients feel assured that they are not perceived as hypochondriacs or wasting the GP’s time.

Article Reference:Renzi C, Whitaker KL, Wardle J: Over-reassurance and undersupport after a ‘false alarm’: a systematic review of the impact on subsequent cancer symptom attribution and help seeking BMJ Open 2015;5:2 e007002 doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2014-007002   http://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/5/2/e007002.full#ref-11

 

 

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