Making sense of bodily sensations: Do shared cancer narratives influence symptom appraisal?

Sara Macdonald (Lead / Corresponding author), Elaine Conway, Annemieke Bikker, Susan Browne, Kathryn Robb, Christine Campbell, Robert J. C. Steele, David Weller, Una Macleod

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)
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Though new or altered bodily sensations are a common occurrence they rarely transition to biomedically defined symptoms. When they do, sensations are subject to an appraisal process that can culminate in help-seeking. The transition has particular relevance for cancer diagnoses. Studies of 'symptom appraisal' in cancer patients typically conclude that failure to regard sensations as serious or 'symptom misattribution' results in lengthier help-seeking intervals. Though multiple influences on appraisal processes are acknowledged, including the socio-cultural context, detailed description and analyses of how socio-cultural factors shape appraisal is lacking. In this paper we explore one substantial component of the sociocultural context, namely, publicly recognised shared cancer narratives, and their impact on appraisal. We undertook a secondary analysis of 24 interviews with Scottish colorectal cancer patients originally completed in 2006-2007. Our analysis showed that fear, death and severity dominated cancer narratives and were frequently restated throughout interviews. Yet, early bodily changes were often mild and vague, were commonly experienced in the context of 'feeling well' and failed to match preconceived ideas of what cancer 'feels like'. Moreover, few perceived themselves to be 'at risk' of cancer and diagnoses were characterised as 'shocking' events. Participants engaged in self-monitoring strategies and severe or painful changes prompted help-seeking. Far from misattributing symptoms, responses to bodily changes were sensible and measured; responses are particularly apt in relation to current policy rhetoric, which urges measured use of services. Our findings have resonance across healthcare settings as patients are required to negotiate a narrow and challenging space when making decisions to seek help. There is a pressing need for a more realistic approach to symptom appraisal in order to reduce help-seeking intervals. Future awareness campaigns should emphasise the importance of vague/minor bodily changes although this will necessitate discussions with health professionals on referral thresholds to achieve earlier detection.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)31-39
Number of pages9
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
Early online date10 Jan 2019
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2019


  • Bodily sensations
  • Cancer narratives
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Help-seeking
  • Symptom appraisal
  • United Kingdom

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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