Ah, the countryside. The home of all that is natural and healthy, the epitome of the ‘good life’. Where you can stroll down the lane to collect fresh eggs or veggies from your neighbour, simply dropping your money in the honesty box left at the end of their drive. I grew up in a rural area, and still live in one now. I love that I only have to walk (more like dawdle - I have a very curious and distractible three year old!) for 10 minutes (five minutes without said three year old) from my front door and I am in the North Yorkshire Moors National Park.
And it seems that living in a rural area could actually be good for you in a number of ways. You are likely to be more satisfied with your life, experience better health overall, and live an average of two years longer than people in urban areas. Maybe it’s the un-polluted air, the connection between land and food, the sense of belonging and community? Or maybe that is just a myth, sold to us all through Postman Pat?
Because, actually, living amidst the beautiful rolling hills may not be so good for you if you develop cancer. In fact, it may even put you at greater risk of developing certain cancers and make you less likely to survive your cancer. With roughly 20% of the population of England living in a rural area, this poses a serious public health problem.
However, we don’t really know why rural patients are facing poorer survival rates than urban patients. One of the strongest factors is that cancer is often diagnosed at a more advanced stage in rural patients, limiting the treatment options available to them. We know that delays in diagnosis are strongly linked to advanced stage cancers, and, as such, encouraging early diagnosis has been central to UK cancer policy for over a decade.
When we begin to think about where diagnostic delays may be occurring for rural patients, it seems that they are investigated and diagnosed just as quickly as urban patients, after referral to hospital for specialist assessment. It follows then that there may be problems prior to referral to hospital that are slowing down rural cancer patients’ diagnoses, either in the way patients respond to symptoms, or the way they are managed in primary care.
Thanks to funding from Yorkshire Cancer Research, and alongside colleagues from Aberdeen and Glasgow, we are starting to look for answers to some of these questions. This study will involve interviewing people in rural Yorkshire to understand their experiences of bowel cancer symptoms and decisions around if, how, and when to seek help about them. The findings from these interviews will be used to work with local communities to think about what interventions we may be able to design to encourage people in rural areas to present to their GP and, hopefully, increase the likelihood that their cancer is diagnosed at an earlier stage and that they will survive.
It is an exciting study, as there is so little known about symptom experiences in rural populations, with lots of issues to explore. For instance, availability and regularity of public transport, provision of health care services in rural areas, hidden poverty, cultural beliefs and experiences of ill health and employment, to name but a few. And then there’s the messy complexity of defining the ‘rural’, or maybe we should be looking to instead describe the multitudes of ‘rurals’? Plenty to keep me busy!
With the arrival of National Bowel Cancer Awareness Month it’s been valuable to reflect on the importance of this study and the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead. Understanding some of the barriers to timely presentation that exist for rural populations, and devising ways to overcome them is our challenge for the next two years, and beyond. Maybe, longer term, we can help to make the ‘rural’ a bit more idyllic.