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Gastrointestinal cancer was classified into four groups according to the site: stomach, caecum and ascending and transverse colon, sigmoid colon and rectum. The incidence of these cancers in general practice is as rare as three per 10,000 consultations. I report on a study in general practice of the symptoms and delays in diagnosis in 150 patients with gastrointestinal cancer. There was an interval of many weeks between the onset of symptoms and diagnosis in the majority of cases. In approximately 50 per cent of cases there was an interval of weeks between the patient consulting the general practitioner and being referred for hospital investigation. No association was demonstrated between delay and social class, age, physical isolation, or the regular consulting rate of the patient. There was evidence that the consulting rate of some patients with gastrointestinal cancer increased in the 12 months before diagnosis because of the presence of symptoms not specific to the gastrointestinal tract.
Much more knowledge of the early symptoms of these cancers is required if the general practitioner is to be able to identify those patients with a high probability of early cancer from others who have symptoms which are common both to non life-threatening conditions and to cancer lesions.