In this large population-based survey socioeconomic and demographic factors were associated with reporting of common cancer alarm symptoms. Some 15.7% of the participants reported having experienced one or more cancer alarm symptoms within the preceding 12 months.
Women, subjects out of the workforce, and subjects with a cancer diagnosis had statistically significantly higher odds of reporting one or more cancer alarm symptoms. Subjects with older age and subjects living with a partner had statistically significantly lower odds of reporting one or more cancer alarm symptoms. When analysing each cancer alarm symptom separately, most tendencies persisted.
Strengths and limitations
Because no validated measure suited our purposes, the use of an ad hoc developed questionnaire was necessary. Although a validated measure is preferable, using ad hoc, but relevant items meant that we could limit the number of items, thus, we believe, improving the response rate. Our symptom prevalences may be underestimated due to recall bias, since symptoms turning out to be harmless may probably soon be forgotten. However, we found no indication that this phenomenon was pertinent to socioeconomic status and therefore it is unlikely to have influenced our socioeconomic analyses.
The results in this paper reflect self-report and as we did not perform any clinical examinations we cannot determine the appropriateness of reporting symptoms.
Selection bias was reduced by randomly selecting participants by means of the Danish Civil Registration System. The large sample ensured a high statistical precision of our estimates with narrow confidence intervals, supported by the high participation rate.
Late responders had essentially the same prevalence of symptom reporting as immediate responders. Therefore we believe that non-responders can reasonably be expected to have a similar prevalence as well .
Our sample is fairly representative of the Danish population according to the distribution of sex and socioeconomic factors. We calculated weighted prevalence estimates according to the Danish population. Further, as associations between health and socioeconomic status seem to be rather universal , it is reasonable to assume that that our results are generalisable to other Western countries.
Comparison with existing literature
A Scottish community-based study from 1978 analysed symptom reporting and socioeconomic factors . Our results cannot be compared directly, as the studies included different symptoms and had different time intervals for symptom reporting. We found different prevalence estimates for symptom reporting, which could be explained by the different time frames for symptom reporting and by the fact that children were not included in our study. For instance, we found a lower prevalence estimate for the total group with regard to coughing (6.5 vs. 15%). One reason could be that the Scottish study asked for coughing within a 2-week period only, thus including more people suffering from a simple cold.
Other studies also found that female sex were associated with more symptoms reporting [28–30]. One possible explanation could be that women have a higher bodily awareness, they pay more attention to bodily sensations, and as a consequence report symptoms more often than men . Another explanation could be that women may have higher morbidity and therefore may be more familiar with recognising symptoms.
Subjects with older age had statistically significantly lower odds of reporting one or more cancer alarm symptom. The same result was found in other studies [30, 32] which could be due to the interpretation of symptoms by elderly people. Elderly people, who are more likely to experience symptoms qua increasing morbidity, may not consider the symptoms to be serious, they normalise it, and therefore not necessary to report. For instance Hickey (1988) reported that elderly people have more symptoms than younger people, but when they consult doctors they tend to report fewer symptoms .
In line with McAteer et al. we found that those out of the workforce had significantly higher odds of reporting one or more symptoms . This result may reflect a higher morbidity among this group of people .
A Scottish study has shown that living alone was associated with increased time before lung cancer patients consulted their doctor about symptoms . Our hypothesis was that people living with a partner would report symptoms more often than singles , simply because they can discuss the symptom with their partner, and thereby remember the symptom. We found that subjects living alone had higher odds of reporting cancer alarm symptoms than subjects living with a partner. This pinpoints the issue that symptom registration may be a mixture of actual symptom experience and symptom interpretation.
Studies have shown that having a close experience with a cancer diagnosis is associated with greater awareness of cancer symptoms [25, 26]. Likewise, we found that subjects with a cancer diagnosis had statistically significantly higher odds of reporting symptoms, which could be explained by a higher level of morbidity and by greater awareness of cancer symptoms in this group of people.
Women and those with a cancer diagnosis had statistically significantly higher odds of reporting having felt a lump in the breast. To a large extent this may be due to the fact that lumps in the breast being predominantly a gender-specific condition and because people with a cancer diagnosis pay more attention to bodily sensations. Furthermore the cancer diagnosis reported could be breast cancer, thereby giving the higher odds. Age above 60 years was statistically significantly associated with lower odds of reporting a lump in the breast. This findings are consistent with others studies indication that older people notice or report fewer symptoms [30, 33]. Another explanation is that benign conditions in the breast such as fibro adenomas are found more often among younger women.
We found that subjects with high educational and income level had statistically significantly lower odds of reporting coughing for more than 6 weeks in adjusted analyses. Furthermore, we found that those out of the workforce had statistically significantly higher odds of reporting coughing. This might be explained by differences in causal factors such as tobacco smoking . Future studies on symptom reporting in a population should include data on lifestyle parameters like tobacco use, alcohol consumption and diet.
Those living with a partner had statistically lower odds of reporting having seen blood in the urine. This could be due to the fact that people had discussed the symptom with their partner, interpreted it to be harmless, and then have forgotten about it.
Those out of the workforce and those with a cancer diagnosis had statistically higher odds of reporting having seen blood in the stool. It is well known that in general persons out of the workforce have a higher level of morbidity  and consequently this phenomenon may also contribute to more symptoms. Further, having a cancer diagnosis will make you more concerned about symptoms and bodily sensations. Women and subjects aged 40+ had statistically lower odds of reporting having seen blood in the stool. We have no qualified explanation as to why women report blood on the stools less often but we assume that the lower odds for older people are seen because they accept having different symptoms frequently – and therefore report symptoms less often.
Implications of the study
The finding that socioeconomic and demographic determinants are associated with reporting of cancer alarm symptoms in this population-based study may help healthcare systems target preventive campaigns. However, in order to tailor campaigns these should be preceded by studies on associations between cancer alarm symptoms and healthcare consulting behaviour. Future studies should also address the impact of other factors on symptom reporting such as comorbidity, previous diseases, cancer in the respondent’s network etc.