The message is clear - don't die of embarrassment

We need to put young people and cancer into perspective - cancer is far more common in older people than it is in the young. There was an average of 1,058 cancer diagnoses a year in the UK among 15-24 year-olds in the last few years, compared to over 60,000 among the over-75s. But cancer in young people categorically does happen ... 


I was recently contacted by BBC Radio 1 and Radio 5 about a new report from the Teenage Cancer Trust, suggesting that young people were so embarrassed and uncomfortable speaking to their doctor that they were delaying seeking help for potentially life-threatening symptoms. In a survey of 1,000 13-24 year-olds, the most common reason given for finding it hard to speak to the doctor was embarrassment.

Both researchers asked the same questions - was that my experience as a GP? Were young people really so scared of looking uncool, or was it that they were worried they would feel stupid if their GP told them there was nothing to worry about? My reply? The only thing about the report that didn't tell the whole story was the bit about 'young people'. In my experience (and I've been seeing patients for a very long time) people of all ages have a tendency to bury their heads in the sand.

We need to put young people and cancer into perspective - cancer is far more common in older people than it is in the young. There was an average of 1,058 cancer diagnoses a year in the UK among 15-24 year-olds in the last few years, compared to over 60,000 among the over-75s.

But cancer in young people categorically does happen. Some cancers, like prostate cancerbowel cancer and breast cancer get more common with age, although they can strike at any time. Others are almost exclusively the preserve of the young.

The most common cancer in teenagers and young adults is germ cell cancer - and the most common kind of germ cell cancer is testicular cancer. Lymphomas, particularly Hodgkin's lymphoma, account for 22% of cancers in this age group and brain tumours are next at 13%. Some kinds of bone cancer also affect young people more often than the old.

This survey suggests that among young people, embarrassment seems to be the main reason for delaying seeking help. Perhaps not surprising - my teenage children have been through phases of being embarrassed about almost everything (especially being seen in public with their mother, but that's another story). And when the most common kind of cancer among young men is testicular cancer - well, enough said.

But with testicular cancer, as with every other kind, early diagnosis is crucial. Although with testicular cancer, the outlook is very good, with an average 95% survival rate overall, your prospects are better if you're diagnosed and treated at an early stage. With other cancer, the difference in prospects between early and late diagnosis is much wider - with breast cancer diagnosed at stage 1, more than 90% are still alive five years on. For stage 4 breast cancer, the figure is 13%.

The kind of treatment you'll need also varies depending on the stage at which you're diagnosed. Many early-stage tumours can be treated with surgery and possibly a short course of radiotherapy. Cancers diagnosed at a later stage often need more radical treatment.

Finally, there's the peace of mind. For every patient concerned about cancer that I send forward for more tests, I can reassure dozens, if not hundreds, that their symptoms are down to a less sinister cause. I've lost count of the patients who have entered my consulting room looking green around the gills, and left with a smile on their faces after weeks of worry. Nobody wants a diagnosis of cancer - but putting off seeking help often means weeks of unnecessary worry. And worst case scenario, getting treatment sooner could just save your life.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.