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Keywords:

  • patient delay;
  • oral cancer;
  • help-seeking;
  • cancer;
  • oncology

Abstract

Up to 30% of patients delay seeking the advice of a healthcare professional after self-discovery of symptom(s) of oral cancer. Reasons for this patient delay are poorly understood. The aim of the present study was to explore patients' initial experiences and reactions to developing symptoms of oral cancer, and to identify factors influencing their decision to consult a health care professional.

In-depth semi-structured interviews were conducted with 17 consecutive patients who had received a diagnosis of oral squamous cell carcinoma, but had yet to start treatment. Participants were asked about their beliefs about their symptoms over the course of the disease and their decision to seek help. The tape-recorded interviews were transcribed verbatim and analysed using ‘Framework analysis’.

Oral symptoms were rarely attributed to cancer and were frequently interpreted as minor oral conditions. As a result of these beliefs, patients tended to postpone seeking help or fail to be concerned over their symptoms. Prior to seeking help, patients responded to symptoms by using self-medication, changing the way they ate and disclosing their discovery of symptoms to friends or family. Problems with access to healthcare professionals and patients' social responsibilities acted as barriers to prompt help-seeking.

This study has documented that an individual's interpretation of oral cancer symptoms may be misguided and this can adversely affect subsequent help-seeking behaviour. Copyright © 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.