09 May 2024

Research blog: Bridging the gap in cancer care: facing reality head-on

Cancer is a major cause of death globally, and it affects each person differently. Many things influence how someone experiences cancer and what happens to them. Where they live, their background, education, age, and gender all play a part. These factors can affect when they get diagnosed and the care they receive. 

At Leukaemia UK, our policy and advocacy work aims to ensure equitable access to care for all affected by leukaemia across the UK. By identifying patient challenges, developing solutions, and pushing for their implementation, we strive to improve the lives of those impacted by this condition through stronger national policies. 

In April 2024, Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS) and Shine Cancer Support released a research report. It talks about the problems people with cancer face and how cancer experiences differ across the UK. The report aims to understand and address the reasons for unacceptable delays in diagnosing cancer and why people from different backgrounds have different experiences with cancer in the UK. 

Exploring health inequalities in cancer

In the past 50 years, the UK has seen significant progress in how we tackle cancer. Thanks to better treatments and diagnostic tools, survival rates have doubled (i).  However, the fight against cancer isn’t just about medical breakthroughs. 

Late diagnosis is a big problem, influenced by social and environmental factors (ii). A report from Cancer Research UK in 2020 estimated that over 30,000 cases of cancer in the UK are linked to poverty (iii). That’s more than 80 diagnoses every day that could have been avoided. 

People in deprived areas often struggle to catch cancer early because they lack awareness, support, and access to information. This leads to later diagnoses and worse outcomes compared to wealthier areas. Minority ethnic groups also face challenges in getting good cancer care and learning about the disease (iv). 

Globally, delays in cancer treatment raise the risk of death by 10% (v).  This shows how crucial early diagnosis and quick treatment are in improving survival rates. 

Inequalities unveiled

The report examined inequalities both before and after cancer diagnosis. Data revealed that people from minority ethnic backgrounds waited 7 months longer for a diagnosis compared to white individuals (vi).  The survey identified two main reasons for this delay: minority ethnic groups were more likely to dismiss their symptoms and hesitate to see a doctor, fearing they might be wasting their GP’s time. 

Furthermore, the report highlighted socioeconomic status as another factor influencing people’s understanding of cancer, affecting whether they sought a diagnosis. Patients with limited knowledge of cancer before diagnosis needed 50% more appointments before being referred, compared to those with a good understanding. Notably, both socioeconomic and minority ethnic groups had poorer knowledge of cancer, its symptoms, and treatment. 

The influence of awareness

The research revealed that people’s understanding of cancer was influenced by their exposure to the disease through various channels such as family members, news, friends, and fundraising efforts by cancer charities like Leukaemia UK. This underscores the importance of our efforts and highlights how education plays a crucial role in early diagnosis, especially for cancers like leukaemia. However, the report also indicates that a significant portion of our population remains unaware of the condition, its signs, symptoms, and available treatments. It’s a stark reminder that knowledge truly is power in the fight against cancer. 

Navigating financial and employment concerns

As if the challenges preceding a cancer diagnosis weren’t daunting enough, the BMS report revealed that financial and employment worries were over 10% higher among minority ethnic groups. This burden is especially pronounced within minority communities, as well as among individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and those under 55 years old. 

A call to action

The report further outlined the groups most affected by cancer inequalities, including individuals with limited knowledge of cancer and their own risk factors, those from cultures where cancer is stigmatized, individuals below the typical age considered at risk, and those from minority ethnic backgrounds. Its aim was to highlight these disparities and underscore the importance of education and awareness. 

Addressing health inequalities requires understanding diverse values and behaviours, though there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Despite these challenges, at Leukaemia UK, we’re committed to reaching as many people as possible and playing our part in raising awareness. Our goal is to empower individuals to take proactive steps, whether it’s requesting a blood test or even a bone marrow biopsy, to ensure timely diagnosis and treatment. 

References

(i) An average of all cancer types taken from: CRUK. Cancer Survival Statistics. https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/survival. Accessed April 2024.

(ii) Ashley, L., and Lawrie, I. (2016) Tackling inequalities in cancer care and outcomes: psychosocial mechanisms and targets for change. Psycho-Oncology, 25: 1122–1126. doi: 10.1002/pon.4278.

(iii) CRUK. Cancer in the UK 2020: socio-economic deprivation. https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/sites/default/files/cancer_inequalities_in_the_uk.pdf. Accessed April 2024. 

(iv) Racial Equity Foundation. Cancer and Black and minority ethnic communities. https://raceequalityfoundation.org.uk/health-and-care/cancer-and-blackand-minority-ethnic-communities/. Accessed April 2024 

(v) Hanna, T.P. et al. (2020) ‘Mortality due to cancer treatment delay: Systematic review and meta-analysis’, BMJ, m4087. doi:10.1136/bmj.m4087. 

(vi) Cancer Equals 1,000 voices, not 1, A Report Highlighting Differences in Cancer Care in the UK, ONC-GB-2400043 | April 2024, Accessed April 2024.  

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