Motivated or immobilised? Fear and seeking diagnosis

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Published: 23 Nov 2016
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Dr Charlotte Vrinten - University College London, London, UK

Dr Vrinten speaks with ecancertv at NCRI 2016 about anxieties around potential cancer diagnosis influencing the likelihood of seeking definitive diagnosis.

She describes social and economic concerns about having cancer, and also of treatment toxicity.

Taking this information forward, Dr Vrinten considers the influence of celebrity diagnosis and potential behavioural outcomes.

We know that a lot of people are worried about their risk of getting cancer. When we do surveys in the general population it’s about two-thirds of people who worry, at least occasionally, about their risk of getting cancer. We also know from previous research that some people are motivated by their worries to go and seek help when they experience a symptom that might be cancer whereas other people are deterred by their own fear. What we don’t know is what causes this difference so we don’t know really when people are motivated to seek help and when they’re deterred from seeking help. So my research is to understand a bit better how cancer fear affects behaviour.

How did you conduct this study?

We’ve done some previous qualitative work where we looked at all the things that people said they were worried about when it comes to cancer. Now this study that we recently did was to ask 2000 people in the general population about their cancer worries and how often they worry about specific things about cancer. So this is basically to put some numbers to the different worries that people report about cancer.

What were the findings?

We found out that cancer worries are very common, like I mentioned before about two-thirds of people worry at least occasionally about their risk of getting cancer. But also there are various things that people specifically can be worried about when it comes to cancer. We found that about two-thirds of people worry about dying from cancer or the emotional impact that a cancer diagnosis would have so they would feel very much upset if they were diagnosed with cancer. We also found that fears and worries about cancer treatment are very common, so about 50% of people worry about cancer treatment such as radiotherapy, chemotherapy and surgery. We also asked about more of the social consequences of a cancer diagnosis and we found that about 50% of people worry about the financial consequences that a cancer diagnosis might have and, to a lesser extent, about 25% of people worried about the social effects that it might have such as the effect on their important relationships or how they would feel about themselves, how they would see themselves.

How can we encourage people to seek help?

By knowing what it is that makes people worried about cancer we might be able to address specific worries that might deter people from seeking help when that’s appropriate. So that would be the next step in our research.

Does celebrity and media exposure to cancer have an impact?

We know that it does, it raises awareness of people’s risk of getting cancer. We also know that a little bit of worry tends to be a good thing; if you don’t think that cancer is applicable to you, if you don’t worry about it at all you’re not very likely to go and seek help when you’ve experienced a symptom or when you’re being invited for cancer screening, for example. So we know that a little bit of worry is probably a good thing but if you have a lot of worry then that might keep you from doing the most adaptive thing for you.

What’s next for your research?

As I say, we now have a little bit of an idea about what it is that people worry about when it comes to cancer and how often people worry about specific things when it comes to cancer. The next step would be to see how each of these worries relate to their behaviour. So, for example, if they get invited by cancer screening, how does being afraid of treatment, how does being afraid of what a cancer diagnosis might mean for your immediate family, how might that affect your willingness to go for screening or to go and see your doctor when you’ve got a symptom?

Any final thoughts?

It might be useful to know that we did the survey amongst about 2,000 people who were not diagnosed with cancer so these would be people like you and me in the general population. We found that the worries, even in the general population are quite high when it comes to cancer.