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Finding the missing lung cancers

This month marks the launch of the second wave of the ‘Do It For Yourself’ campaign – a collaborative effort by charities, medical organisations, healthcare professionals, biopharmaceutical company MSD UK Ltd, and people with cancer to raise awareness of lung cancer symptoms and encourage action.

Dr Stuart Griffiths, Director of Research, Services and Policy at Yorkshire Cancer Research, explains why the campaign is so important for Yorkshire.

From revamping the garden to catching up on a decade of odd jobs, the coronavirus pandemic sparked a DIY boom as people sought to improve their living spaces.

However, research has found that while people will often take the time and energy to fix things around the house, they may not direct that same energy and drive into seeing their GP about worrisome health symptoms.

Last year, as lockdown restrictions were imposed across the country, far fewer people contacted their GP with cancer symptoms – meaning fewer cancers were diagnosed than we would normally expect.

This doesn’t mean fewer people developed cancer during the pandemic, but that many people were, and possibly still are, living with a cancer that hasn’t yet been found.

This caused huge concern among charities, medical organisations and health professionals, because it was clear that these cancers were less likely to be found at an early stage, when they are usually easier to treat – and that an entire generation of cancer patients might potentially find themselves at an increased risk of being lost to the disease.

Towards the end of 2020, we saw a sign of light at the end of the tunnel.

People had begun seeking medical help again, and more people were being referred to hospitals for cancer tests than before the pandemic.  

When we went into lockdown for a second time in January 2021, referrals began to decrease again. But data for May 2021 shows that referrals are far exceeding pre-pandemic levels.

However, there is one exception to this, and that is lung cancer.

The number of people in Yorkshire coming forward with lung cancer symptoms took much longer to recover. Those being referred to hospital with suspected lung cancer only reached pre-pandemic levels in May, and have not risen enough to make up for all the missed referrals over the last year.

That’s why we’re supporting the ‘Do It For Yourself’ campaign as part of an urgent collective effort to save lives by tackling the lung cancer backlog.


The challenge

Lung cancer was already a problem before the coronavirus pandemic took hold.

Sadly, 7 in every 10 lung cancers are found after they have spread beyond the lungs to other parts of the body, rather than early when treatment is more likely to be successful.

Symptoms of lung cancer often do not appear until a late stage or are confused for those of other illnesses and conditions; sometimes only becoming apparent when they have become life-threatening.

In Yorkshire, lung cancer is a particular challenge. We have significantly higher rates of lung cancer in the region, and a higher proportion of people die from the disease.

To try to tackle this, we’re funding lung health check programmes to screen people at high risk of lung cancer. Screening can help find lung cancers at a very early stage when they are too small to be causing any symptoms.

But until lung screening is rolled out across the country, it’s imperative that we make sure people are able to spot the key signs and symptoms and are able to access medical help quickly.

Tackling the barriers

The coronavirus pandemic has heightened issues already hindering the early detection of lung cancer.

Following the outbreak, there was a growing realisation that symptoms of lung cancer could be confused with those of COVID-19. When you hear someone cough, I’m betting you think of coronavirus and not lung cancer, but if someone has a negative Covid test and is still coughing three weeks later then this could be a sign of lung cancer.

Research also showed that people were reluctant to seek help because they were confused about which services were open. They may have been turned away from GP surgeries or had hospital appointments cancelled, or they didn’t want to burden the NHS or risk catching coronavirus.

The ‘Do It For Yourself’ campaign aims to tackle these barriers by:

  • raising awareness of symptoms
  • calling attention to the fact that not every cough is COVID
  • and reassuring people that their GP surgery is open and ready to see them safely.

Finding the missing cancers

We estimate that 380 lung cancers in Yorkshire went undiagnosed between April 2020 and February 2021.

These people may be living with cancer right now without knowing it and may have their cancer diagnosed later than it should have been.

We need to do everything we can to make sure these missing cancers are found as quickly as possible.

‘Do It For Yourself’ was originally launched in November 2020 across Greater Manchester, the North East and North Cumbria, and was aimed particularly at those aged over 50 who are most at risk.

Early findings indicate the campaign played an important role at reaching and engaging at-risk patient groups, while most importantly also supporting diagnosis and referrals.

With this in mind, we’ve helped bring the campaign to our region so more people can benefit.

Backed by Good Morning Britain’s resident medic Dr Hilary Jones and Bradford-based Dr Amir Khan, the second phase will involve widespread outdoor advertising across Yorkshire – including roadside billboards, bus stop posters and supermarket TV screens – along with leaflets, pop-up banners, web advertising and a social media campaign.

Don’t delay

Not every cough is a COVID cough; having a cough for three weeks or more or getting out of breath doing things you used to be able to do, could be signs of lung cancer.

In addition, lung cancer can also present the following symptoms:

  • 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

If you are concerned about a persistent cough or shortness of breath don’t delay, make an appointment to talk to your GP practice as soon as you can. It’s probably not cancer but if it is, an early diagnosis could save your life.