Last year, fewer people were going to see their GP with cancer symptoms because of the COVID-19 pandemic. By December 2020, the number of people being referred to hospitals for further tests was back to normal levels. But one notable exception to this was lung cancer.
Recent data indicates that across England, the number of referrals for suspected lung cancer in December was around three-quarters (73%) of what would normally be expected. In Yorkshire, this figure was 84%, which is higher than the rest of England but still a long way off where it should be.
This reduction in referrals led to a dip in the number of people being treated for lung cancer towards the end of last year. From October to December 2020, 5% fewer people than expected were being treated for lung cancer in Yorkshire.
It’s not yet known why referrals for lung cancer have not returned to pre-pandemic levels. One of the common symptoms of lung cancer – a persistent cough – can be mistaken for COVID-19 and once people have a negative test they may not go on to see a GP if the cough doesn’t go away. It’s also possible that people may be reluctant to go see their GP because they are concerned about being exposed to the virus or don’t want to be a burden on the NHS.
Lung cancer is a big problem in Yorkshire. It’s the biggest cause of cancer-related death in the region, with more than 3,000 people dying from the disease every year. 7 out of 10 lung cancers are caused by smoking, and Yorkshire has the highest rate of smoking of all the regions of the UK – although anyone can get lung cancer, smoker or not.
When it comes to lung cancer, it’s all the more worrying that some lung cancers aren’t being found as early as they could be when they are more treatable. Even before the pandemic, two-thirds of lung tumours were diagnosed at a more advanced stage, when cancer is more difficult to treat and sadly more likely to be fatal.
Because of this, Public Health England launched the ‘Help Us, Help You’ lung cancer campaign last week, to encourage people with a cough lasting three weeks or more and who don’t have COVID-19 to contact their GP. Members of the public and famous faces, including Gabby Roslin and Andrew Strauss, all shared their story of why it is so important that lung cancer is caught early.
Doctors in Yorkshire also want to reassure the public that if they have cancer symptoms, hospitals are safe and ready to see them.
Dr Mat Callister, a Consultant of Respiratory Medicine at St James’ University Hospital in Leeds says:
“The lung cancer symptoms we’re interested in are predominantly breathlessness, a persistent cough, and chest pain – they’re three of the most important lung cancer symptoms.
“GPs want to see patients with these symptoms. They can still arrange for patients to receive the same tests as before the pandemic. All the hospital clinics are still running, and there are doctors and nurses in the hospital ready to see people and find out what’s going on.”
Taking early action is crucial when it comes to lung cancer. While a cough for three weeks or more is probably nothing serious, it could be a sign of something that needs treatment.
So whether you have new symptoms, or have been putting off going to see your doctor during the pandemic, we would urge you to contact your GP as soon as possible. It probably isn’t cancer, but if it is, then it’s important that it’s found as early as possible when it is more likely to be treated successfully. An early diagnosis could save your life.
How is Yorkshire Cancer Research helping to tackle lung cancer?
Yorkshire Cancer Research is funding a pioneering study called Leeds Lung Health Check, which is testing community-based lung cancer screening. The team are using mobile CT scanners in locations across Leeds, like shopping centres and supermarket car parks, to scan the lungs of 7,000 people. The hope is that CT scanners could pick up lung tumours at an early stage when they can be treated more effectively, potentially saving lives. If successful, the project could lay the foundations for a national lung cancer screening programme, like what we have for other types of cancer.
We have also supported the Check Your Lungs campaign in Hull, to encourage people to look out for friends and family who might need a lung health check. We are also funding research to improve treatment for lung cancer, including projects that aim to reduce the side-effects of radiotherapy, and investigate how cutting-edge hospital scans can help doctors work out the best treatment for the disease.
The main symptoms of lung cancer include:
- a cough that doesn’t go away after two or three weeks,
- a long-standing cough that gets worse,
- chest infections that keep coming back,
- 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.
In particular, if you have had a persistent cough for more than three weeks, and it isn’t COVID-19, it’s vital that you contact your GP as soon as possible.