Patients with lung cancer are missing out on potential treatment due to delays in coming forward for diagnosis, Cancer Research UK is warning.
Figures analysed by the charity show between March last year and this January, around 20,300 fewer people were urgently referred for suspected lung cancer in England compared to the same period the year before – a 34% drop.
Some 9% fewer people also started treatment for the disease between April 2020 and January 2021, the equivalent of 2,600 patients.
Cancer Research UK surveyed 1,000 GPs across the UK in February on the reasons why diagnosing lung cancer had become more difficult during the pandemic. It found GPs were most concerned about patients being reluctant to attend hospital for tests (91% of GPs felt this was contributing to delays) and patients with symptoms not seeking help (78% thought this was the case).
Other factors included increased turnaround time for diagnostic tests (73%), difficulty in identifying symptoms via remote consultation (68%) and turnaround time for Covid-19 testing prior to people having lung tests (54%).
Lung cancer is the most deadly type but if it is diagnosed early when it is more treatable, 57% of people will survive for five years or more. This compares with 3% of people diagnosed at the latest stage.
Dr Neil Smith, Cancer Research UK’s GP adviser, said: “It’s incredibly worrying fewer lung cancer patients have started treatment since the beginning of the pandemic. For those who’ve been unable to get through to your doctors’ surgery, I would encourage you to keep trying, GPs are still here to help you.”
Rebecca Davis, 35, an office worker from the midlands and mother to Alexa, six, was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma ALK-positive lung cancer in August 2020. “I’ve always been prone to coughs, but I started to worry when I had one that just wouldn’t go away,” she said. “I took a Covid test to rule it out and then made an appointment with my GP. I wasn’t nervous about going, I just wanted to get to the bottom of it.”
“Initially I was diagnosed with pneumonia, but my GP wasn’t convinced and sent me for a repeat X-ray six weeks later,” said Davis. “The results then led to a CT-scan that discovered my cancer.
“As I’m a non-smoker and so young, the thought of it being cancer never crossed my mind. It was the last thing I suspected in the world and it’s very rare for my age. I’m glad I sought help and I would encourage anyone to do the same. Don’t leave it until it’s too late. I’m now having targeted therapy which is helping and I’m lucky there are more treatment options available to me.”
Symptoms of lung cancer
It’s important for everyone to be aware of the key symptoms of lung cancer. These include:
- A cough which doesn’t go away after two to three weeks
- A long-term cough which worsens over time
- Persistent chest infections
- Aches or pains when breathing or coughing
- Tiredness or lack of energy
- Coughing up blood
- Loss of appetite or unexplained weight loss.
There are also some less common symptoms of the disease to be aware of. If your fingers change shape (becoming more curved or their ends becoming larger); you have a high temperature; difficulty or pain when swallowing; wheezing; a hoarse voice; swelling in your face or neck; and persistent chest or shoulder pain, you should see your GP.