Britons' reluctance to go to the doctor may explain poor cancer survival rate

The British stiff upper lip could account for the country's poor showing in the European cancer survival league – but no one knows for sure, the Government's cancer tsar has warned.

Professor Mike Richards, the national cancer director, said thousands of lives could be saved in Britain if patients consulted their doctors sooner with suspect symptoms and were diagnosed and treated more quickly. Ignoring symptoms such as a lump in the breast, blood in the faeces or a persistent cough could be a death sentence.

Up to 11,000 deaths from cancer could be prevented every year if Britain improved its survival rates to match the best-performing countries in Europe, according to figures published yesterday by Cancer Research UK. Asked to explain the gap with Europe, Professor Richards said: "It is a very interesting question to which we do not have the answer. We may be too stoical – I don't know.

"We know that cancer treatment in Britain has improved vastly in recent years and we are now beginning to see the impact on our survival rates. But we have still got work to do if we are going to catch up with the rest of Europe," he said. "I believe that if we can tackle delays in diagnosing cancer, we will be able to save thousands more lives in the future."

Professor Richards authored a review of "top-up" payments for cancer treatment – allowing individuals to pay privately for drugs not available on the NHS – which was published earlier this month, and recommended quicker access to new treatments.

He admitted Britain had been slow in the past to take up new drugs. But he added: "I don't believe that had any significant impact on survival rates. I am quite sure earlier diagnosis is far more important. I feel really strongly this could make a real difference."

Under a National Awareness and Early Diagnosis Initiative, launched today, research is planned in conjunction with a number of countries "whose survival figures we trust" to examine differences in culture, attitudes and awareness that could affect attendance for diagnosis and treatment, he said. Work is also underway in the UK to improve public awareness of cancer, with pilot schemes in 20 primary care trusts run by the Improvement Foundation.

Professor Richards said: "They hold meetings in pubs, clubs, bingo halls and mosques. The aim is to get people to start talking about bowels and breasts and coughs, to find out what people know about cancer and to stimulate discussion.

"It is much more positive to say 'If you catch it early you are more likely to be cured' than to say 'Delay means you are more likely to die'."

Researchers from Cancer Research UK compared survival rates for 39 cancers in Britain and 13 other European countries, using data for patients diagnosed in 1995 to 1999, published in 2007 in the Eurocare-4 study.

The results show that if Britain's survival rate had been the same as the European average, there would have been 6,500 fewer deaths annually. Around 150,000 people die of cancer each year in Britain.

Compared with the best countries in Europe, cancer deaths in Britain were around 11,000 worse, indicating that the gap had closed slightly from 12,000 in the late 1980s.

Recent improvements in treatments suggest that Britain has made further gains compared with the rest of Europe, researchers said.