Lung cancer: The ‘unexplained’ symptom that needs an ‘urgent referral’ – new BMJ report

Lung cancer: Dr Amir describes the symptoms in February

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Lung cancer is one of the most common and serious types of cancer. Around 47,000 people are diagnosed with the condition every year in the UK. Partly what makes lung cancer so serious is that it’s not usually detected until it has progressed – this leads to poorer survival outcomes.

However, spotting the symptoms as soon as they arise can greatly improve your odds.

A new BMJ article is urging people to seek an “urgent referral” if they notice a specific warning sign.

The BMJ article states: “Unexplained haemoptysis warrants urgent referral (within 14 days) for computed tomography imaging.”

Haemoptysis, also known as coughing of blood, is one of the main warning signs of lung cancer.

Other general signs include:

  • A change in a cough you have had for a long time
  • Breathlessness
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Ongoing chest infections
  • A hoarse voice
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Changes in the shape of your fingers and nails called finger clubbing
  • Swelling of the face caused by a blockage of a main blood vessel (superior vena cava obstruction)
  • Loss of appetite.

The importance of spotting lung cancer early

Lung cancer survival rates are generally poorer than other types of cancer, owing in part to the absence of symptoms in the beginning.

About one in three people with the condition live for at least one year after they’re diagnosed and about one in 20 people live at least 10 years.

However, survival rates vary widely, depending on how far the cancer has spread at the time of diagnosis.

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Early diagnosis can therefore make a big difference.

“See a GP if you have symptoms of lung cancer, such as breathlessness or a persistent cough,” advises the NHS.

According to the health body, the GP will ask about your general health and your symptoms.

“They may examine you and ask you to breathe into a device called a spirometer, which measures how much air you breathe in and out.”

The health body adds: “You may be asked to have a blood test to rule out some of the possible causes of your symptoms, such as a chest infection.”

Am I at risk?

Most cases of lung cancer are caused by smoking, although people who have never smoked can also develop the condition.

In fact, “up to a quarter of lung cancers are diagnosed in people who have never smoked”, states the BMJ article.

Occupational exposure and pollution is a lesser-known but potentially significant risk factor.

Exposure to certain chemicals and substances which are used in several occupations and industries may increase your risk of developing lung cancer.

These chemicals and substances include:

  • Arsenic
  • Asbestos
  • Beryllium
  • Cadmium
  • Coal and coke fumes
  • Silica
  • Nickel.

Research also suggests that being exposed to diesel fumes over many years increases your risk of developing lung cancer.

One study has shown your risk of developing lung cancer increases by around 33 percent if you live in an area with high levels of nitrogen oxide gases (mostly produced by cars and other vehicles).

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