Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Cancer awareness among adolescents in Britain: a cross-sectional study

Richard G Kyle*, Liz Forbat and Gill Hubbard

Author Affiliations

Cancer Care Research Centre School of Nursing, Midwifery and Health, University of Stirling, Stirling, FK9 4LA, UK

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BMC Public Health 2012, 12:580  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-12-580

Published: 31 July 2012



Little is known about adolescents’ cancer awareness and help-seeking behaviour in Britain. This study assessed adolescents’: awareness of cancer symptoms, common cancers, and the relationship between cancer and age; anticipated delay and perceived barriers to seeking medical advice; and examined variation by age, gender, ethnicity and whether individuals knew someone with cancer.


A survey was conducted using a modified paper version of the Cancer Awareness Measure (CAM). The sample included 478 adolescents (male: n = 250, 52.3%) aged 11–17 years old (mean = 13.8, SD = 1.24) recruited from four British schools between August and October 2011.


Adolescents’ cancer awareness was low. Half of all adolescents did not know the most common childhood (51%) or teenage (49%) cancers and most (69%) believed cancer was unrelated to age. Awareness of cancer symptoms was significantly higher among older adolescents (aged 13–17 years) (p = 0.003) and those who knew someone with cancer (p < 0.001). Three-quarters (74%) of adolescents indicated they would seek help for a symptom they thought might be cancer within 3 days, and half (48%) within 24 hours. The most endorsed barriers to help-seeking were ‘worry about what the doctor might find’ (72%), being ‘too embarrassed’ (56%), ‘too scared’ (54%) and ‘not feeling confident to talk about symptoms’ (53%). Endorsement of these emotional barriers was significantly higher among females (p ≤ 0.001).


There are certain groups of adolescents with poor cancer awareness. Cancer messages need to be targeted and tailored to particular groups to prevent the emergence of health inequalities in adulthood. Interventions to raise adolescents’ cancer awareness have the potential for a life-long impact on encouraging early diagnosis and survival.