We’re a nation of hypochondriacs willing to spend hours Googling symptoms – all while avoiding seeing a pharmacist or doctor for help with medical problems.
Internet searches for issues such as “how to know chest pains are serious” rose by 8,781% between 2015 and 2018.
Words such as “acne” and “ IBS ”, alongside “treatment”, are searched for on average more than 100,000 times every year.
Meanwhile, we are getting worse at seeking help from a GP or pharmacist.
Research by Pharmacy2U, the UK’s largest online pharmacy, found that 39% of respondents had lived with a condition for far longer than needed to avoid the embarrassment of talking about their condition.
And an astonishing 12% of people are currently suffering from something they are reluctant to seek medical help for.
But delaying diagnosis and treatment can have significant repercussions for long-term health, allowing problems to worsen, become more difficult to treat and – in serious cases – potentially become deadly.
GP and medical columnist Dr Rosemary Leonard MBE says: “All too often I see patients who have tried to ignore their symptoms only to find when they have eventually come to see me that they have a serious disease that is far more difficult to treat than it would have been had it been diagnosed sooner.
“Occasionally I have patients who are found to have advanced cancer that can no longer be cured.
“So it really is important to seek medical advice if you have symptoms that persist for more than two weeks, such as constipation, blood in your motions, swelling or discomfort in your tummy or difficulty in swallowing.
“Other symptoms that warrant attention are chest pain, shortness of breath, or unexplained weight loss.
“And some symptoms should be addressed within days, such as a lump in your breast or coughing up blood.”
Our embarrassment doesn’t end once we’ve had a diagnosis.
Macmillan Cancer Support has found that one in five people with cancer – around 500,000 in the UK – find it difficult to seek help with side effects of their treatment, such as bowel and bladder problems, anxiety, or sex and relationship issues because of embarrassment or shame.
Ben Hearnden, lead Macmillan prostate cancer clinic nurse specialist at East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust, says: “It’s really sad that despite dealing with a serious illness, people are too embarrassed to ask for help with the associated physical problems as well as their mental wellbeing.
“Patients that I work with can often experience problems with incontinence, erectile dysfunction and relationships.
“I find these are some of the topics they feel most embarrassed to broach.
“But not addressing these issues can have a huge impact on physical and emotional health, and in some instances, even treatment outcomes.”
Hazel Smith, 31, from Dorset, was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2018.
She says: “Although my cancer has now been successfully treated, I have been left with side effects that could be considered taboo. Pelvic radiation causes internal scarring.
“This damaged tissue can in turn cause your vagina to become narrower and shorter. It was a shock to me. I find it one of the most difficult aspects after treatment.
“Initially I felt embarrassed about it, but now I’d rather be honest, so people can understand the impact of cancer.”
Even the more commonplace, easily treated problems are leaving us tongue-tied.
Pharmacy2U’s research found that 16% of millennials suffering from an “embarrassing” condition, such as thrush or constipation, won’t collect medication from a pharmacy because they are too embarrassed to ask someone for it face to face.
Behavioural psychologist Jo Hemmings says: “Medical embarrassment has two distinct factors – self-consciousness at the condition and concern at being judged.
“It’s important to understand that medical professionals will have seen all these ‘stigma’ conditions many times before and they are also trained to be completely impartial and totally confidential.
“We are perhaps most embarrassed by those conditions that involve personal hygiene, like body odour and bad breath, or concerns ‘down there’ like erectile dysfunction, unexpected lumps or vaginal discharge.
“However, while many of these conditions are easily and swiftly treated, it can feel awkward both to visit your GP in the first instance and to collect prescriptions from your pharmacy.
“But there’s always the option of using an NHS-supported online pharmacy, where your medications can be delivered straight to your door.
“Remember that whatever your condition, the nurses and doctors will have seen others with it before.
“Don’t let embarrassment prevent you getting the help you need.”
- Pharmacy2U deals with NHS repeat prescriptions, delivering medication direct to your door. Its services are available online and via a free app on your smartphone or tablet
‘I ignored my cancer symptoms for six months’
Fund manager Waldo de Vleeschauwer, 35, lives in Kingston, Surrey, with his wife Samantha and their four-month-old son Theo.
He waited six months before seeing a doctor after discovering a lump.
I’ve always been fit and healthy, but when I was 28 I noticed a dull nagging ache in my groin. At first I thought it was a sports injury as I was very active and played a lot of squash.
When I checked myself, I found a lump, but being a typical male I ignored the symptoms for six months before I finally went to the doctor.
As time went by the lump got bigger but I still didn’t do anything about it. It wasn’t painful but I was aware of it all the time. I didn’t really like the idea of having to drop my pants at the GP surgery.
At the time, I was sharing a flat with a friend and I mentioned it to him one evening. He told me to go and get it checked out straight away, but it still took me another month to finally make the appointment.
By the time I was finally diagnosed with testicular cancer (seminoma, a germ cell tumour of the testicle), it had spread to my lymph nodes, and I needed three cycles of chemotherapy, as well as surgery to remove my testicle and some of my lymph nodes.
It’s really hard to say for sure that I could have avoided chemo if I had acted sooner, but I did learn from the experience.
It was ignorance and arrogance on my part and I would never leave anything that long again.
I would say to any young lad, if you find a lump, don’t hesitate to get it checked out.
More awareness is needed to change men’s mentality on this. After my experience, all my friends went for check-ups and started supporting cancer charity Movember.