How to spot cancer and getting diagnosed
Teenage years are all about discovery: working out who you are, meeting new people, doing things for the first time, going places.
Lots of these exciting possibilities carry with them stresses and worries about doing the right thing such as looking the right way and fitting in with the right people. It’s also a time for a lot of physical change both good and bad. Hormones can mean spots and you’re desperate to grow the right amount in the right places. All of this means you’re suddenly very physically aware of yourself.
When it comes to cancer, this physical awareness is a good thing. We all should know our bodies better than anyone, so if we find that something has changed and we can’t explain it, it’s important to get it checked out. Many people, especially teenagers, find speaking to anyone about their bodies totally embarrassing. So the prospect of talking to a doctor can be daunting. It’s important to remember that cancer in young people is very rare and it could be that the symptoms are due to an ordinary every day illness.
Teenage Cancer Trust knows that for young people with cancer the first step of seeking medical advice is a very frightening time. Getting answers and support as soon as possible is vital in helping alleviate some of the anxiety caused by not knowing what’s wrong. We want to make sure that every young person diagnosed with cancer receives the best possible care and support from the time they first speak to their GP.
Teenage Cancer Trust regularly asks young people with cancer about their experiences of being diagnosed. Although many sing the praises of their GP and the way in which they were treated, our recent survey indicated that this isn’t always the case:
- One in four (24%) teenage cancer patients had to visit their GP at least four times before their symptoms were taken seriously and they were referred to a specialist
- Of the young people surveyed, two thirds (61%) felt their diagnosis could have been made quicker
- A fifth (21%) of young patients reported that their GP’s did not refer them to a specialist at all
- Almost two thirds (59%) presented at least two of the most common cancer symptoms: pain, lump/swelling, tiredness, headache or drastic weight loss
Why are there delays?
We believe delays in diagnosis are largely down to three things:
Young people are not recognising the signs
Lots of young people aren’t aware of the common signs of cancer so they don’t recognize them in themselves. It can also take a while for them to tell their parents or someone else close to them that they are worried about something.
Katie, 24, from London was 22 when she was diagnosed with Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia: “I didn’t realise anything was that wrong with me, other than feeling a bit off.”
GP’s not recognising the signs
It’s important to remember that cancer in young people is very rare and some GPs may never have a young person in their care diagnosed with the disease. The average teenager isn’t regular face in the GP waiting room so it’s important that GPs listen to them when they do ask for help. GPs need to consider cancer to be a possibility in young people and know what to look for. We want to see a ‘three strikes’ approach – if after three visits there is no reasonable explanation GPs should refer for further investigation.
Laura, 21, from Hemel Hempstead, was 18 when she was diagnosed with a germ cell tumour on her left ovary. It took 13 months of going back and forth to her GP until she was diagnosed. “The GP dismissed my symptoms as being ‘normal’ for a teenage girl to experience and wasn’t something to worry about.”
Young people and GPs not knowing how to talk to each other
When young people do seek medical advice they don’t always explain themselves very well or they may feel intimidated by the GP. Similarly, GPs can find it challenging to communicate effectively with teenagers.
Nicholas, 23, from Glasgow, was 20 when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Nicholas found himself going to the doctors four times before he was referred to a specialist which he found very frustrating. “I felt like I was banging my head against a brick wall and the doctor just didn’t understand what I was trying to say.”
So what‘s Teenage Cancer Trust doing about it?
- Helping young people recognise the signs and symptoms of cancer: We’re speaking to hundreds of thousands of young people every year through our national education programme which delivers free talks about cancer to schools, colleges and universities across the UK.
Getting cancer on the curriculum: We’re lobbying the government for cancer education to be part of all UK National Curriculums so that every young person learns about cancer
Working with GPs: We’re looking to work with GPs to improve their knowledge of cancer in young people and the specialist support available to their patients.
Laura was 18 when she was diagnosed with a germ cell on her left ovary. It took 13 months of going back and forth to her GP until Laura was finally diagnosed whilst having an emergency operation for what they thought was a problem with her appendix.More
Tell your story…
If you're a current or ex-patient and diagnosed with cancer between the ages of 13 to 24 you may like to share you story.
By telling us your story you can help other young people understand what it’s like to have cancer and help others understand why the work of Teenage Cancer Trust is so important.