Having a traditional “stiff upper lip” could be putting Britons in mortal danger from cancer, researchers claim.
A study by international experts suggests that British stoicism may help explain differences in cancer survival between the UK and other high-income countries.
People in Britain were said to be more likely than others to avoid bothering their doctor or nurse over symptoms they find embarrassing and time-wasting.
As a result, cancer sufferers were less likely to be treated at an early stage when there is a greater chance of survival.
Dr Lindsay Forbes, from King’s College London, one of the lead authors of the research published in the British Journal of Cancer, said: “The UK stood out in this study. A high proportion of people said that not wanting to waste the doctor’s time and embarrassment might stop them going to the doctor with a symptom that might be serious.
“The traditional British “stiff upper lip” could be preventing people from seeing their doctor.”
The scientists, from a collaboration called the International Cancer Benchmarking Partnership, previously compared cancer survival in a number of developed countries, including the UK.
For lung, breast, bowel and ovarian cancers diagnosed between 1995 and 2007, Australia, Canada, Sweden and Norway had the best survival rates.
Denmark and the UK had the lowest, despite all the countries having similarly good cancer registration systems and access to health care.
One year, survival for people with lung cancer was 30% in the UK compared with 44% in Sweden.
The new study, jointly conducted with the charity Cancer Research UK and pollsters Ipsos Mori, set out to learn whether cultural factors could explain the differences.
Researchers surveyed 19,079 men and women aged 50 and older in the six countries.
They found little difference across borders in people’s awareness of cancer symptoms and their views about the chances of surviving the disease.
But when the scientists looked at barriers to seeing the doctor with early cancer symptoms, British reserve came to the fore.
Being worried about wasting a doctor’s time was especially common in the UK, where it was reported by 34% of those surveyed. In contrast, just 9% of Swedes were concerned about time-wasting in the surgery.
Embarrassment about going to the doctor with a potentially serious symptom was most common in Britain (15%) and least common in Denmark (6%).
However, ignorance also had a part to play. Awareness that cancer risk increased with age was lowest in Canada (13%) and the UK (14%) and highest in Sweden (38%).
Dr Forbes said: “We need to support people to make the right decisions about their health and increase awareness of the age-related risk.”
Professor Jane Wardle, from University College London, said: “In the UK, it’s important to understand more about how people make the decision to go to their GP with possible cancer symptoms, and how they interact with their GP, to identify the best ways to reduce barriers to early presentation.”
Sara Hiom, director of patient engagement and early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK, said it was encouraging that Britons appeared to be knowledgeable about cancer symptoms and had positive beliefs about cancer outcomes.
But she added: “The research highlights that people in the UK are more worried and embarrassed about seeing their doctor with a symptom that might be serious compared to those in other countries.