Worldwide, cancer is one of the leading causes of death, but a new study reported in PLoS One has found that most people ignore cancer warning signs, attributing them to symptoms of less serious illnesses. 

Researchers analyzed responses of 1,724 people over the age of 50 to a health questionnaire that asked participants whether they had experienced any of 17 symptoms, 10 which are defined as cancer alarm symptoms. The symptoms included unexplained cough, changes in mole appearance, unexplained bleeding, persistent change in bowel habits, unexplained weight loss, difficulty swallowing, and unexplained lumps. Patients were not told which symptoms were cancer warning signs. The respondents were also asked what they thought was the cause of the symptoms they experienced, whether they deemed the symptoms to be serious, and whether they had visited a healthcare provider as a result of their symptoms. 

Although 53% of the participants reported that they had experienced at least one cancer warning sign over the past three months, only 2% of respondents considered warning symptoms to be cancer related. In many cases, people attributed potential signs of cancer to reasons such as age, infection, arthritis, cysts, and hemorrhoids. 

The researchers said that their findings show that the majority of people are dismissing potential warning signs of cancer, which could be putting their health at serious risk. They noted that their results could help healthcare providers find new ways of encouraging people with symptoms to consider cancer as a possible cause and to get assessed by a healthcare provider early when treatment is more likely to be successful.