Lung cancer remains the UK's biggest cancer killer, with more than one person dying from the disease every 15 minutes. Each year, more people die of lung cancer than of colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined.
It accounts for about 27% of all cancer deaths, by far the leading cause of cancer death.
Just one in three people diagnosed with lung cancer will live for a year after their diagnosis and the majority of the 45,000 people diagnosed with the disease each year live less than six months.
The UK lags behind other comparable countries, with patients in some EU countries living much longer with the disease.
A major reason for this inequality is that patients present late to GPs and the diagnosis is difficult and slow. Thus the chances for successful treatment are low.
Nurses can help patients by urging them to be aware of key symptoms. If someone has any of the following for more than three weeks, they should see a GP:
- A cough that doesn’t go away.
- A worsening of a long standing cough.
- Unexplained breathlessness.
- Chest infections.
- Coughing up blood.
- Unexplained weight loss.
- Chest and/or shoulder pains.
- Unexplained tiredness or lack of energy.
- Hoarse voice.
At present, only 16% of lung cancer cases are diagnosed at an early stage. In fact, 35% of all cases are diagnosed at hospital A&E departments, when the disease is too far advanced for curative intervention.
Lung cancer also has the stigma of being a ‘smokers’ disease’, despite the fact that around 15% of patients have never smoked. Other ways that lung cancer can develop include air pollution and passive smoking. Other causal factors can be: radon gas pollution, genetic damage through exposure to asbestos or other irritant chemicals, and radiation. Others are just plain unlucky – when their cells copy themselves, they make imperfect copies with genetic damage, which becomes lung cancer.
A person’s decision to smoke does not make them in any way ‘to blame’ if they develop the disease. Lung cancer can arise in a number of ways – and not all people who smoke or have smoked will develop lung cancer because they smoked. It’s not a simple, causal mapping.
This years Lung Cancer Awareness Month in November highlighted diversity. The reality is that anyone with lungs can get lung cancer, regardless of whether they smoke, whatever their lifestyle or background.
To that end, studies to evaluate screening for lung cancer are underway. In the near future, mobile screening units, using low dosage computed tomography, may help reach people most at risk of developing lung cancer when it is still early enough to intervene.
Lorraine Dallas, Director of Information and Support, Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation