Four out of ten people claim not to know any of the symptoms of bowel cancer, the UK's second biggest cancer killer, according to new data from Beating Bowel Cancer, the charity behind Bowel Cancer Awareness Month.

Philippa Luscombe, clinical negligence partner at Penningtons Solicitors LLP, urges people not to die of ignorance: "As solicitors who deal with complex and distressing negligence claims, we are frequently approached by people with concerns about delays in the diagnosis of their cancer who are upset or angry at perceived failures in their care and worried at the potential impact of a delay in diagnosis."

The latest evidence from Beating Bowel Cancer of the widespread ignorance of the signs of bowel cancer combined with the reluctance of people to go back to their doctors if they have ongoing symptoms means there are diverse factors to consider when advising people about whether or not they should consider bringing a claim for a delay or error in the diagnosis of their cancer.

Think carefully before pursuing a claim

Philippa advises a cautious approach to bringing a claim: "We always warn people to think very carefully before embarking down the litigation route and to carefully reflect on their reasons for pursuing a claim. Clinical negligence claims for delayed diagnosis of cancer are harrowing cases to bring, with the focus being on lost treatment opportunities and potential reduction in life expectancy.

"While we have had a number of cases where diagnosis has been missed or delayed in circumstances which clearly represent substandard care, there can be a significant factual discrepancy between what the patient says they reported in terms of symptoms and what is recorded in the notes and records. Patients often find it very upsetting to find that their version of events is disputed."

However, the main area of difficulty with these cases is proving that the delay or misdiagnosis has made a difference. In many cases, a delay of some months, or even years, can make very little difference to treatment and outcome because of the nature of the tumour and its rate of growth. This can result in any compensation being very small because, thankfully, no damage has been caused by the delay. Patients therefore need to consider carefully whether they can handle the stress involved in litigation to achieve a limited result.

At the other end of the scale, a negligent delay can make all the difference in terms of treatment options available and, ultimately, likely survival. These cases are often very large claims but the flip side is that the claim itself will focus on issues such as likely survival and statistics and this can be a gruelling process. It is therefore important that people consider exactly what they want to achieve.

Better awareness can save lives and reduce claims

Often the driving force behind a claim is to obtain funding to compensate for loss of earnings or perhaps to pay for private medical treatment not available on the NHS – and in these circumstances bringing a claim may be the only option. But if the motivation is to obtain answers to concerns or draw attention to failures so that they do not happen again, people should consider carefully whether litigation is really the best route to achieve this.

Philippa concludes: "We welcome this latest research by Beating Bowel Cancer which calls on people to take "a few moments to learn the symptoms of bowel cancer and when to act on them". It is bad enough for cancer patients to have their life expectancy reduced by clinical negligence but it is even worse to die of ignorance. Better health awareness will not only achieve the ultimate aim of saving lives but it will also mean that cases of culpable clinical negligence may be reduced as patients are more informed and can push for the investigations they need."