Cough, cough… cancer? This month, GP Alice Fitzgibbon will focus on lung cancer.
With everything that has happened with COVID-19 across the world, no one wants to admit to having a new cough. But if you do, it is so important not to ignore it. Lung cancer is a common condition in the UK. According to Cancer Research UK statistics, there are over 47,000 cases diagnosed each year – that’s around 96 people every day. Lung cancer accounts for more deaths each year than any other kind of cancer and only one out of every three people diagnosed will still be alive after one year. These statistics are shocking, especially as it is recognised that more than three quarters of all cases are entirely preventable.
Why is lung cancer so deadly? Partly because it is a condition that may not have any symptoms until the disease has spread. This is known as secondary lung cancer. In the early stages of disease, there may be no symptoms at all, despite the cancer starting to grow. It may also depend on the type of lung cancer, which can be split into two main types:
– Non- small- cell lung cancer. This is the most common type, accounting for more than 87 per cent of cases.
– Small-cell-lung cancer. This type is more aggressive and fast growing than non-small-cell lung cancer.
The treatment offered for lung cancer will depend on the type. In primary lung cancer, where the cancer is only found in the lung, it might be possible to have surgery to remove it. However, if the cancer has already spread outside the lungs, then surgery to remove it will be less likely to work. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy are often used. There are also new treatments called targeted therapies available which work on the specific cancer cells to try and stop them growing – this can help stop the cancer progressing but will not cure it.
So who gets lung cancer? Lung cancer mainly affects older people. It is rarely seen in those aged under 40 years. I mentioned earlier that over three quarters of all cases are thought to be preventable – that includes all the cases (72 per cent) that are caused by smoking. Smoking regularly introduces multiple different harmful substances into the lung tissue. These chemicals destroy the healthy lung tissue and damage the cells. The damage done to the cells can turn them into cancer cells and a tumour will begin to grow. Lung cancer can also develop in non-smokers although this is less common. It may be related to genetics or to chance.
The signs and symptoms to look out for are the most important part of this article, especially if you are or have ever been a smoker. Please see your GP if you have:
- A persistent cough that does not go away
- New shortness of breath
- Been coughing up blood
- Unexplained weight loss or tiredness
- Pains in the chest when breathing or coughing
Any of these features should alert your GP to the possibility of lung cancer. We will often arrange for you to have a chest X-Ray. Sometimes these will pick up changes that are suspicious; sometimes other tests or scans are needed.
If you can do one thing to help yourself and your health, stopping smoking will be one of the most effective steps you can take. Stopping smoking will reduce cancer risk (not just lung but many types) and prevent damage to your blood vessels and, therefore, help your heart, brain and kidneys remain healthy, reducing the risk of stroke, heart attacks and kidney disease.
Over the last few decades the UK has seen a reduction in lung cancer rates and deaths. This is due to smoking being less common, but there are still too many people dying from this disease. Further research and potential screening for high risk people may be something that helps more cases be identified in the early stages. Please see your GP if you have concerns – we want to see you.
For further information on lung cancer from the NHS visit https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/lung-cancer/