On May 7 2013 the Daily Mail highlighted the increase in cases of lung cancer in women who have never smoked. The paper asked Dr Michael Beckles, Consultant in Respiratory Medicine at The Physicians’ Clinic for his opinion on this issue. “As I explained, we have quite strong anecdotal evidence that more women are being diagnosed with lung cancer today compared to a decade ago,
” said Dr Beckles.
The reasons suggested in the article include exposure to second-hand smoke or to environmental toxins such as radon gas, asbestos, exhaust fumes from diesel vehicles and solvents.
The dangers of passive smoking are now recognised but thirty years ago, it was much more common and women who are now in their late 40s and 50s who were brought up in a family of smokers would be at increased risk of developing lung cancer.
This could be why 6,000 of the 41,500 new cases of lung cancer diagnosed each year in the UK are in people who have never actively smoked, but it does not mean that tobacco is off the hook. The evidence that shows smoking to be a direct cause of lung cancer is overwhelming.
Tragic real-life cases
The Daily Mail article highlights two women, both never-smokers, who developed lung cancer in their late 40s. One, Sian Busby, wife of Robert Preston, Business Editor for the BBC, died in September 2013 from the disease after battling it for five years. The other, Lyn Barrington is still fighting and is currently being treated with the new drug gefitinib.
Lyn highlights the difficult that she had being diagnosed. After having a troublesome cough for months, she collapsed and was hospitalised and treated for a chest infection. X-rays and other tests did not reveal the cancer and it was only found 15 months after she first started having symptoms.
The tumour was large, 11cm across but it had been low down in the lungs, below the diaphragm and so had been hidden from view in the X-rays. X-rays have since been superceded by CT scans for initial diagnosis as these are more likely to detect tumours, irrespective of their location in the lungs.
Dr Beckles: “At The Physicians’ Clinic we have the expertise and multidisciplinary teams in place to ensure that a prompt diagnosis of lung cancer is made. Not only do we have access to state-of-the-art diagnostic and staging investigations such as CT scanning, endobronchial ultrasound and PET/CT scans, one of our physicians, Dr Jeremy George, is one of the country's most experienced practitioners in fluorescence bronchoscopy and photodynamic therapy.
Symptoms you should not ignore
The NHS recommends that anyone who has a cough for more than three weeks that cannot be explained (by having just had a cold, for example), should see their GP to start having some tests.
Other symptoms that are linked with lung cancer include:
- A cough you have had for ages that suddenly worsens
- Getting a lot of chest infections
- Getting breathless for no reason
- Coughing up blood
- Feeling very tired and having no energy
- Losing weight when you aren’t trying to
- Discomfort or pain in your chest or shoulders
- Speaking with a hoarse voice
- Problems with swallowing
All of these symptoms can be caused by other problems much less serious. However, it’s best to get them checked out for peace of mind. If they do turn out to be due to lung cancer, early treatment is vital.