How GPs can offer cancer patients the support they need

Most GPs see only a handful of patients with cancer every year, says Macmillan GP Dr Nicola Harker, but how they handle those patients is crucial.

Macmillan Cancer Support GP Dr Nicola Harker
Macmillan Cancer Support GP Dr Nicola Harker

As a GP, you may only see an average of 6-8 cancer patients per year. But for those people you do diagnose, you’ll play a vital role in offering support; from spotting signs and symptoms, to referring your patient, to breaking the news. Research by Macmillan Cancer Support reveals that almost 1 in 10 (8%) of people are told they have cancer by their GP.

Breaking the news that someone has cancer is a very delicate and sensitive matter, yet surprising findings from our research show that 7% of patients are told over the phone or by letter and 2% were told by a friend or relative. Needless to say, it’s really important that people are told in the right setting.

If a GP is breaking the news, it’s crucial that, where possible, they do it face-to-face to ensure the patient has understood the information given to them but also has immediate support following the consultation.

Patient support

Not only is it important to make sure your patient is told in the right place, it’s vital that they have the right people there to provide support. One in three people say they were in a daze and couldn’t take anything in, meaning it’s really important that they have someone with them to take notes and ask any questions they don’t think to ask.

GPs should actively advise their patients they can take someone with them if they want to. Family and friends can help people understand the often-complex information they are being told about their prognosis and treatment options.

Even though a patient will initially be treated under secondary care, GPs have an important role in checking patients understand their treatment choices, and also identifying potential long-term effects of their treatment. As we learn more about the long-term impact of cancer treatments, there is an increasing need for the whole primary care team to be aware and involved in monitoring patients and identifying late effects of cancer.

Currently, around 625,000 people in the UK are estimated to be facing poor health or disability after treatment for cancer.

Cancer review

One thing GPs can do to identify patients' needs and help them access support from the moment of diagnosis is to organise a cancer care review to discuss whether their patient is getting the support they need to cope with the different ways cancer has affected their life.

Patients need to know what support is available to them from the get-go, whether in relation to their care or the different ways cancer can affect their wider life and wellbeing. GPs can point patients to support if they are experiencing problems with anything from struggling to pay the mortgage because their finances have been hit when their sick pay runs out, to worrying about their relationships as result of a diagnosis.

No matter how a patient learns they have cancer they can always come back to their GP for support. For many, they are a familiar face in the revolving door of health professionals they meet as they go through tests and treatment. It’s vital GPs are equipped not only to spot signs and symptoms of cancer but to recognise their ongoing role in supporting cancer patients with the challenges they face.

  • Macmillan Cancer Support provides a range of services GPs can signpost their patients to including a telephone support line, website with information and advice, financial support and peer-to-peer support through an online community. For more information visit or call 0808 808 00 00

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