A cancer false alarm could put people off checking out cancer symptoms they develop in the future, according to a review of papers.

More than 80 percent of patients with potential cancer symptoms are given the all-clear after investigations. But according to the new paper, having a false alarm might discourage people from seeking help, even years later, if they notice possible symptoms of the disease again.

The researchers, from the Health Behaviour Research Centre at UCL (University College London), carried out the review of 19 studies. It suggested that patients may delay seeking help for new or recurrent symptoms if they feel ‘over-reassured’ following a previous false alarm or felt under-supported at the time by the health care system.  The most frequently studied cancer was breast cancer, followed by gynaecological, bowel, testicular, head and neck, brain cancer and multiple cancer sites.

If patients felt unsupported and believed they had been treated dismissively, some had concerns they might appear to be a hypochondriac or making a fuss if they had future symptoms checked out.  Several studies also reported that insufficient explanation or advice at the time of the false alarm, on possible causes of the symptoms or the next steps, left patients feeling that doctors could not help them, and unsure about what to do next.

Lead author Dr. Cristina Renzi, a Cancer Research UK health expert at UCL, said, “Patients who go to their GP with symptoms are obviously relieved to find out that they don’t have cancer.

But, as our review showed, it’s important that they don’t have a false sense of security and understand they should still seek help if they notice new or recurrent symptoms. Having an all-clear now doesn’t guarantee that you won’t develop cancer in the future. 

“It also appears to be important that patients are given the right support and information during and after cancer investigations so that, following a false alarm, they will still feel encouraged to get any new symptoms checked out quickly."

The researchers concluded that providing appropriate, balanced information to patients who have a cancer false alarm, including making sure they don’t feel foolish about having sought help, might encourage them to check out any future symptoms earlier. When cancer is diagnosed at an early stage, treatment is more likely to be successful.

The review indicated that over-reassurance could lead to patients, and sometimes clinicians, linking any future symptoms to the earlier all-clear. In the case of breast symptoms, a benign biopsy result appeared to give some women a false sense of security for many years, with some also reporting being less breast aware even though there would be no guarantee they could not develop breast cancer in the future.

Citation: Cristina Renzi, Katriina L Whitaker and Jane Wardle, Over-reassurance and under-support after a ‘false alarm’: a systematic review of the impact on subsequent cancer symptom attribution and help-seeking.  BMJ Open