Opinion: Lung cancer symptoms are changing

A new study is urging GPs to consider shortness of breath and coughs as potential predictors of lung cancer. Here Professor Sam Janes (UCL Medicine) explains why awareness of these symptoms needs to be raised among doctors and the general public.

A new study has been released urging GPs to consider shortness of breath and cough as potential predictors of lung cancer, after the study found they were becoming more common as the first symptom in diagnosis.

There are around 47,200 new lung cancer cases in the UK every year - around 130 every day - and lung cancer is the most common cause of cancer death in the UK - making early diagnosis vital.Lung cancer can be difficult to diagnose as the symptoms can often be very similar to other lung conditions such as bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and chest infections, making it difficult to spot early.

This sadly means lung cancer patients are often diagnosed quite late, which can mean the cancer has spread, making it much more difficult to treat and cure. As this study shows, the symptoms produced by lung cancer seem to be changing with shortness of breath and cough becoming more common as the first symptom while we are seeing a fall in coughing up blood and loss of appetite.

One reason for this could be that over the last 20 years we have seen a sharp fall in lung cancers that occupy the windpipes or airways of the lung. It was these cancers that often caused the distressing symptom of coughing up blood. Now we tend to see more cancers in the outer spongy areas of the lung where gas exchange occurs - these cancers tend to bleed less often.

The study also raises an important point: it’s vital we raise awareness amongst the public and doctors of these subtle changes in symptoms. This may lead to patients presenting and being diagnosed earlier, potentially leading to more people being cured.

It’s important for people to look out for a new cough that isn’t going away after two to three weeks or a change in your cough if you usually have one. Other symptoms to look out for are persistent breathlessness, tiredness or lack of energy, aches or pains when coughing or breathing and recurring chest infections.

If you have these symptoms, you should see your doctor. Having these symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean you have lung cancer - they’re common and have many different causes. People with long-term lung disease might already have many of them. But it’s very important to tell your doctor if your usual symptoms change or become worse.

This article was originally published in the i newspaper on Monday 3 February, 2020. 

Links 

  • Original article in the i newspaper
  • Study published in British Journal of General Practice
  • Professor Sam Janes’ academic profile

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