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Men are dodging the doctor when cancer symptoms appear

The Cancer Research UK logo
by Cancer Research UK | News

25 May 2004

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Half of UK men admit they would delay going to the doctor if they developed warning signs of cancer.

A survey1 specially commissioned to launch Cancer Research UK’s Man Alive campaign today reveals that a considerable proportion of the male population could be compromising their health because of a reluctance to visit GP surgeries.

Only 52 per cent of men questioned for the poll said they would immediately seek medical help if they found traces of blood in their stool. This is one of the commonest symptoms of bowel cancer2, a disease that affects 19,000 UK men each year.

Younger men were most likely to cite embarrassment as a reason to delay getting their symptoms checked, whereas those in the 45+ age group were concerned about what the doctor might find as the result of an examination. Lack of time was a factor across all groups.

The findings are particularly concerning given that cancer now kills more men in the UK than any other condition, including heart disease.3

A third of men polled could recall a time when their female partners had convinced them to make a doctor’s appointment when they did not really want to.

Cancer Research UK’s Man Alive campaign aims to promote greater awareness of the symptoms of cancers that affect men, including lung, bowel, prostate and testicular cancer.

Campaign supporter and football legend Denis Law, who recently underwent successful treatment for prostate cancer, says the survey’s findings confirm his own experience.

Law, one of the stars of Sir Matt Busby’s all-conquering Manchester United side in the 1960s, waited three months to seek medical help after experiencing problems with his ‘waterworks’.

When he eventually did seek help – after some encouragement from his wife Di – he underwent tests, including a biopsy.

He recalls: “I remember being called in to see my urologist for the results of the biopsy. As soon as he mentioned the word ‘cancer’, I went numb.

“Later on, I felt shocked and isolated. Months earlier, I hadn’t even known I was ill. Looking back, I should have seen my doctor earlier but I think men are like that; we don’t like to face up to things. I’ve always been fit and I guess I just put my problems down to getting older. I buried my head in the sand.”

The 63-year-old Scot, who scored more than 200 goals for Manchester United and won 55 international caps, underwent surgery.

“Fortunately the cancer was diagnosed in time for me to have the widest choice of treatment options available. But I was told that if I had further delayed seeking help surgery may not have been an option and the outcome may have been entirely different,” says Law, who now receives regular check-ups.

Cancer Research UK runs a cancer information helpline, staffed by specialist nurses. The majority of calls to the service are from women, despite the fact that cancer affects similar numbers of men and women.

Julia Frater, one of the charity’s Senior Cancer Information Nurses, says: “Our experience reflects the fact that men are reluctant to seek help if they have a problem with their health. We know that girlfriends and wives are often instrumental in encouraging their partners to get medical advice, even going as far as making appointments for them.”

Dr Richard Sullivan, Head of Clinical Programmes at Cancer Research UK, says: “It is understandable that many men are reluctant to visit their doctor. They are often less acquainted with GP surgeries than women. Data shows that British women under 45 are twice as likely to have visited their GP over a given time period than men in the same age group. Factors like childbirth and gynaecological examinations mean women often face potentially embarrassing situations earlier than men and have to confront and overcome these issues earlier in life.

“I would encourage all men to be aware what’s normal for them and to see their GP if they are experiencing any health problems. Usually, symptoms turn out not to be caused by cancer. However, an early cancer diagnosis ensures all treatment options are available which can help to improve the outcome.”


  1. Survey conducted by NOP World, face to face, between April 1-6 2004, among 1,888 adults aged 16+. Weighting was applied to the data to bring it in line with national profiles.
  2. The most common sign of bowel cancer (colorectal cancer) is blood in the stool or faeces. However, bleeding accompanied by lumps, swellings, itching or soreness around the back passage may also be caused by piles (haemorrhoids). Another common cause of bleeding is anal fissure.
  3. There were around 79,800 deaths from cancer and around 79,500 deaths from heart disease among men in the UK in 2001. This compares to 84,250 male deaths from cancer and 100,600 from heart disease 10 years ago. Overall deaths from cancer have fallen by 15 per cent in the last decade. But deaths from heart disease have dropped by 30 per cent, mainly due to the impact of lifestyle changes and cholesterol-lowering drugs.