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Psychooncology. 2016 May;25(5):567-73. doi: 10.1002/pon.3964. Epub 2015 Sep 11.

Emotional responses to the experience of cancer 'alarm' symptoms.

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School of Health Sciences, Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, University of Surrey, UK.
Health Behaviour Research Centre, Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, UK.



To qualitatively explore associations between emotional responses to experience of cancer 'alarm' symptoms and help-seeking in a community sample of adults.


Interviewees (n = 62) were recruited from a community sample (n = 2042) of adults aged ≥50 years, who had completed a health survey that included a list of cancer alarm symptoms. Participants who had reported an alarm symptom both at baseline and 3-month follow-up (n = 271), and who had consented to contact (n = 215), constituted the pool for invitations to interview.


Over a third of participants (37%) described an emotional response to their symptom experience. In all these cases, there was evidence of awareness of the risk of cancer. Emotional responses were usually either classified as mild ('worry') or severe ('fear'). Worry was often described in the context of a desire to seek medical help, either to rule out cancer or to minimise patient delay. In contrast, the 'fear' group described associations with death, the perceived incurability of cancer, and the consequence of a cancer diagnosis. Where the emotional reaction was fear, medical contact was seen as something to be avoided either because it had no value or because it was preferable not to be told a diagnosis.


In this community sample, worry about the possibility of cancer was associated with help-seeking, either for reassurance or as part of a 'sensible' strategy to deal with the risk. In contrast, fear was associated with avoiding help-seeking or even thinking about cancer, which could lead to prolonged help-seeking intervals.

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