In denial: Why do we often ignore medical symptoms, when we know better?

Extracts from a media article published online January 16, 2017 at

Putting off a visit to the doctor, even to check what could be a sign of a serious illness, is surprisingly common, experts say.

Ignoring symptoms of a disease with a high mortality rate is a surprisingly common phenomenon, says Dr. Kim Lavoie, co-director of the Montreal Behavioural Medicine Centre and a psychology professor at the University of Quebec at Montreal. “People will cognitively avoid things they don’t want to be real; it’s a natural defence mechanism,” she says. Studies have shown the different ways it manifests – from using humour, to outright refusal to acknowledge that an illness might exist.

“Many people delay seeing their doctors, and won’t even tell their spouses,” Dr. Lavoie says. And when they finally make an appointment, they tend to minimize their symptoms. “Patients will lead the discussion in a certain way, so that the doctor will be more likely to reassure them,” she says, which means that doctors often don’t get a true history and may make important decisions based on inaccurate information. Denying that something is amiss, Lavoie says, leads to delayed diagnosis and treatment, and poorer outcomes. So why do otherwise rational people take an “if I don’t see it, it isn’t there” approach to symptoms that can have a devastating effect on their health?

A study published in the British Journal of General Practice in 2015 found that almost half of cancer patients ignore early warning signs such as a persistent cough or an unexplained lump. “Our research found that people are very unlikely to consider cancer as a possible cause, even when they ‘know’ these symptoms can be cancer warning signs,” says Dr. Katriina Whitaker, a senior lecturer at the University of Surrey and lead author of the study. Dr. Whitaker says many people are afraid to even book an appointment because they’re worried about what a doctor might find. “We’ve discovered that people are reluctant to even mention the word ‘cancer’ in their responses to us, almost as though if you mention it, you’re doomed.”

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