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Lung cancer - Lung cancer symptoms

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One of the reasons lung cancer is so dangerous is because the symptoms are vague and often aren't severe until the cancer is in its late stages.

UK survival rates are poor compared with the rest of Europe and the USA. Half of all lung cancer patients die within six months of diagnosis. Only 7.5% of people with lung cancer in the UK survive compared with 9% in Europe and 15% in the USA. Many people don't realise that if lung cancer is detected earlier, it can be cured.

Experts believe that the poor survival rate in the UK is partly because people don't recognise that their symptoms could be serious. They don't get help until it's too late.

More than two-thirds of lung cancers are diagnosed at a late stage, when the likelihood of survival is reduced.

Some smokers feel they shouldn't bother their GP when they have symptoms that may be caused by smoking. For this reason they can be reluctant to go to the doctor.

Many lung cancers spread quickly and can grow to quite a large size if they're not detected, so it's vital to recognise warning signs early and get medical attention promptly. It's important to remember that lung cancer can be cured, and this is more likely if it's caught early.

If you have any of the following symptoms, especially if you smoke or have been a smoker, see your GP as soon as possible:

  • A cough that doesn't go away after three weeks.
  • Coughing more often and more severely than usual.
  • Coughing up blood.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Feeling weak or more tired than usual.
  • Losing weight without knowing why.
  • Pain in the ribcage and/or shoulder.
  • Chest infections that won't go away, even with antibiotics.
  • Hoarseness.
  • Swelling of the face and neck. 
  • Feeling more tired than usual. 

These symptoms may not be serious, in which case you've got nothing to lose by getting them checked. If they are serious, you've got everything to gain. Diagnosis at an early stage could save your life. 

There are many places you can get help:

  • Check your symptoms with a doctor, nurse, pharmacist or call NHS Direct on 0845 4647 and mention your specific concerns.
  • If you're concerned, ask your doctor for a chest X-ray, which can identify any problems with your lungs.
  • If you want further advice you can contact a charity such as the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation, Macmillan Cancer Support, Cancer Help UK or the British Lung Foundation (see External links).

Screening for lung cancer

The search is on for a screening test for people at high risk of lung cancer (such as heavy smokers, ex-smokers and people exposed to asbestos) that can diagnose the disease at an early stage, even before symptoms have appeared. 

At the moment, lung cancer is usually picked up on a chest X-ray and this is a valuable test in many patients. However, it's not reliable for detecting tumours in their early stages.

Researchers are trying to find a reliable test to detect early disease. So far, there are two possibilities: low-dose radiation computed tomography (CT) scanning, and new ways of examining the sputum (spit) combined with an advanced type of bronchoscopy (looking into the airway with an instrument). Both tests are currently being trialled in thousands of people, and the results are due within the next few years.

Medical Review: May 18, 2009

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