Of nearly 4,000 people questioned, 19 per cent of men and 10 per cent of women said they did not know any symptoms that could be a sign of the disease.
And the lack of awareness was more marked for people from ethnic minority communities, with 28 per cent failing to recall a symptom compared with 13 per cent of white participants.
Sara Hiom, director of health information at Cancer Research UK, said: “It’s really important that people can recognise cancer symptoms and feel that they can report concerns to their GP at an early stage.
“While it’s good news that most people correctly named some cancer symptoms, we’re concerned by the number of people who drew a complete blank.
“When cancers are detected earlier, treatment is usually more effective and often milder. We’re not expecting people to be able to recall every symptom, but being generally aware of changes that could be a sign of cancer could make a crucial difference for people who do develop the disease.”
A lump was mentioned as a sign of cancer by over half of people.
A quarter of those surveyed would recognise a skin problem as a potential sign of cancer and, in particular, moles were mentioned by 16 per cent of people.
Twenty-two per cent of women and 16 per cent of men mention weight loss as a sign that could be cancer and almost one in five people mentioned bowel, urinary or toilet problems as a possible symptom.
Sara Hiom added: “We believe as many as 5,000 deaths could be avoided each year in the UK if cancers were diagnosed earlier. Cancer Research UK is working closely with the Department of Health and NHS to improve cancer survival through earlier diagnosis as part of a major national initiative called NAEDI*.
“A big part of NAEDI aims to improve and measure public awareness of cancer signs and symptoms.
“Many of the symptoms that could be cancer often turn out to be a milder ailment, but it’s best to get things like unusual lumps, changes to moles, unusual bleeding or changes to bowel motions checked out by a GP.”
For media enquiries please contact the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 7061 8300 or, out-of-hours, the duty press officer on 07050 264 059.
Notes to editors:
* NAEDI is the National Awareness and Early Diagnosis Initiative. A standardised, validated measure of cancer awareness – the Cancer Awareness Measure (CAM) – and key messages about the key signs and symptoms of specific cancers have been developed as a part of NAEDI.
The survey was carried out face-to-face during October 2008 by the British Market Research Bureau for Cancer Research UK.
3,947 people were asked: “Can you name any sign or symptoms that could be an indication of cancer?” Participants, who were not given a list of options to choose from, named the below factors in response.
Could not name a single symptom of cancer or said none (14% ± 1%; Male: 19% ± 2%; Female: 10% ± 1%; White: 13% ± 1%; Ethnic minority groups: 28% ± 5%) Lump (54% ± 2%) Skin problem (25% ± 1%) Moles (16% ± 1%) Weight loss (Male: 16% ± 2%) (Female: 22% ± 2%) Mentioned Bowel, Urinary, or toilet problems (19% ± 1%)
It is important to get to know what is normal for your body. That way, you are more likely to notice any unexplained or persistent changes that might be early signs of cancer. There are over 200 different types of cancer which can cause many different symptoms. For more information about cancer symptoms, click here.