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Lung Cancer Awareness Month promotes early detection to boost survival rates

Posted: 22/11/2017


This Lung Cancer Awareness Month Elise Bevan, a solicitor in the clinical negligence team at Penningtons Manches, shares information about the signs and symptoms of lung cancer and the importance of early detection. 

What is lung cancer? 

Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in the UK. It is one of the more serious types and has the lowest survival rate in the UK out of all cancers, with fewer than 1 in 10 people surviving for at least five years after their diagnosis.

Lung cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells that start off in one or both lungs. The abnormal cells do not develop into healthy lung tissue but divide rapidly and form tumours. Cancer that begins in the lungs is called primary lung cancer. Cancer that begins in another part of the body and spreads to the lungs is known as secondary lung cancer or metastatic lung cancer.

Each year around 23,000 men and 18,000 women are diagnosed with lung cancer. More than 75% of lung cancers are diagnosed in people over the age of 65.  About 35,000 people die from the disease in the UK every year. Smoking is the single greatest avoidable risk factor. 

Symptoms of lung cancer 

Symptoms of lung cancer develop as the condition progresses and there are usually no signs in the early stages. The main symptoms of lung cancer include: 

  • cough that doesn’t go away after two or three weeks
  • a long-standing cough that gets worse
  • persistent chest infections
  • coughing up blood
  • an ache or pain when breathing or coughing
  • persistent breathlessness
  • persistent tiredness or lack of energy
  • loss of appetite or unexplained weight loss 

Less common symptoms include:

  • swelling of your face or neck
  • a hoarse voice
  • broadening or thickening of the tips of your fingers (called clubbing) 

Many of the symptoms of lung cancer, such as a cough, can also be symptoms of  other much less serious conditions. If you have had any of these symptoms for longer than three weeks, you should contact your GP surgery for advice. 

Treatment for lung cancer

Treatment of lung cancer depends on the type of cancer you have, how far it has spread and your general health. 

Small-cell lung cancer (SCLC) is usually treated with chemotherapy rather than surgery because it has often spread by the time it is diagnosed. Chemotherapy for SCLC is sometimes combined with radiotherapy.

Non small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC) may be treated with surgery, chemotherapy or other medications, radiotherapy, or a combination of these methods.

Radiotherapy uses radiation to destroy cancer cells. A beam of radiation is targeted onto the area of the lung where the cancer is to shrink the tumour.

Chemotherapy uses medicines to destroy cancer cells. It is the treatment you are mos likely to be offered if you have SCLC but may also be used in NSCLC. Chemotherapy is usually given as an injection or through a drip.

These treatments have potential benefits but can also cause side-effects. You will be provided with information about the treatments to help you decide which treatment to have, and so you know what to expect. Everyone is different and the effects of treatment vary.

Importance of raising awareness

If lung cancer is diagnosed early, treatment may not only be more effective, but the chance of cure and survival rates will improve. Unfortunately, however, only 15% of lung cancer cases are found in the early stages when treatment can still lead to cure. 

It is important to raise awareness that detecting cancer at an early stage and prompt referral for treatment are often crucial to a successful outcome for the patient.

NICE guidelines provide recommendations for good practice in the diagnosis and treatment of lung cancer. The guidelines stress the importance of early diagnosis and the need to raise awareness of the symptoms and signs which are characteristic of lung cancer.

A late diagnosis or misdiagnosis can have serious consequences. Unfortunately, delays and misdiagnoses do occur and as specialist solicitors we have advised in relation to many cancer compensation claims. The types of issues we see include:  

  • failing to heed warning signs such as a persistent cough, coughing blood, back or chest pain;
  • failing to revisit the original diagnosis and re-assess when symptoms continue;
  • failure to refer for investigations;
  • referral to the wrong specialists;
  • delays in arranging tests / treatment;
  • mistakes in interpreting and reporting on X-rays or scans;
  • mistakes in interpreting and reporting on pathology (examination of tissue under a microscope);
  • failure to act upon abnormal test results.

For those who become seriously ill with cancer and have a clinical negligence claim, compensation may be very important for their quality of life. Compensation can enable them to have: 

  • private medical treatment, avoiding delays and in greater comfort than in NHS hospitals;
  • nursing care at home;
  • help with housework;
  • money to make good any loss of earnings. 

Where the patient sadly does not survive, a claim can provide for family members who relied on them financially or with domestic and other help. 

British Lung Foundation campaign

The British Lung Foundation has recognised that compared to the European average, lung cancer survival in England is low.

Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, said: “Many lung cancer patients face a lack of understanding of the signs and symptoms of lung cancer when they do report them, with a recent report highlighting that many patients attend a number of consultations before they receive a diagnosis, which often leads to a worse experience of care and potentially worse outcomes.” 

It has been recognised that in order to improve survival for lung cancer patients, healthcare professionals and the general public need to be more aware of the signs and symptoms of the disease.

The British Lung Foundation has prepared a report making a series of recommendations for improving the diagnosis and the care that follows. The recommendations include the following:

  • a commitment to rapid adoption of a targeted, evidenced-based lung cancer screening programme;
  • lung cancer risk assessment and clinical decision support tools tested and made available in all primary care practices;
  • introducing a timed pathway for patients with suspected lung cancer admitted as an emergency;
  • rapid access outpatient pathways introduced to prevent unnecessary emergency admissions;
  • GPs being able to make direct access referrals for CT scans for patients with suspected lung cancer;
  • all chest X-rays and CT scans formally reported within four days, and local systems in place to trigger referrals to a specialist rapid access lung cancer clinic;
  • GP practices and secondary care consultants to share access to their direct telephone or email addresses to speed discussion about high risk cases. 

Support 

A diagnosis of lung cancer can be devastating for the patient and family. There are a number of organisations which offer help and advice to patients and carers who have been diagnosed with lung cancer including Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation, Macmillan Cancer Support and Cancer Research UK.

These organisations are dedicated to defeating lung cancer and fund research into early diagnosis as well as providing support to patients and their families.  Those affected can share experiences through networks and support groups.


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