GPs are ‘missing lung cancer symptoms’ in non-smokers despite them making up one-in-seven victims of the disease, officials warn
- 6,000 Brits who have never smoked die of lung cancer annually, with rates rising
- Scientists say non-smokers will overtake smokers among sufferers in a decade
- GPs struggled to diagnose the symptoms of lung cancer in non-smokers
- While those who smoke are quickly sent for a scan if they have a hacking cough, those who do not smoke are usually seen as low-risk
Lung cancer is on the rise among non-smokers as experts warn that GPs are missing the symptoms.
Leading health officials said last night the issue received far too little attention – despite the fact 6,000 Britons who have never smoked die of lung cancer every year.
Smoking remains by far the biggest cause of lung cancer, but one in seven victims is a non-smoker, and scientists predict that within a decade, people who have never smoked will overtake smokers among lung cancer patients.
Air pollution from traffic and industrial emissions is a major cause of lung cancer among this group, as is passive smoking. Exposure to chemicals at work is also thought to be a factor.
Some 6,000 Brits who have never smoked die of lung cancer every year in Britain and rates are increasing. However GPs struggle to diagnose the symptoms of lung cancer if someone is not a smoker
The experts’ paper, published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, said lung cancer in ‘never-smokers’ was a ‘hidden disease’.
It said GPs struggled to diagnose the symptoms of lung cancer – which usually starts as a persistent cough – if someone is not a smoker. While those who smoke are quickly sent for a scan if they have a hacking cough, those who do not smoke are usually seen as low-risk.
‘Lung cancer in never-smokers does present a diagnostic challenge, particularly for general practitioners seeking to balance over-investigation with early diagnosis and high-quality care,’ the researchers wrote.
Lead author Professor Paul Cosford, medical director of Public Health England, said: ‘For too long, having lung cancer has only been thought of as a smoking-related disease.
‘This remains an important association but, as this work shows, the scale of the challenge means there is a need to raise awareness with clinicians and policy makers of the other risk factors, including indoor and outdoor air pollution. By delivering on the promise of a clean air generation we can reduce the number of lung cancers among those who have never smoked.’
Separate research published by the Royal Brompton Hospital in London found the number of lung cancer operations among non-smokers had doubled in six years.
While those who smoke are quickly sent for a scan if they have a hacking cough – one of the first symptoms of lung cancer – those who do not smoke are usually seen as low-risk
It said non-smokers made up 13 per cent of lung cancer cases at the hospital in 2008, but that rose to 28 per cent by 2014. The Royal Brompton doctors said ‘never-smoking lung cancer will be the predominant type of lung cancer within the next ten years’.
Professor Mick Peake of University College London Hospital, who co-authored the new paper, said: ‘Despite advances in our understanding, most people who have never smoked do not believe they are at risk and often experience long delays in diagnosis, reducing their chances of receiving curative treatment.
‘The stigma of smoking has been the major factor behind the lack of interest in, knowledge of and research into lung cancer. Therefore, in many ways, never-smokers who develop lung cancer are, as a result, disadvantaged.’
Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said: ‘Lung cancer can be very difficult to diagnose in primary care as one key symptom is coughing, which can also be a sign of much more common, less serious conditions – particularly if the patient is a non-smoker.’
She added: ‘Despite this, GPs are doing a very good job of diagnosing cancers generally and it’s credit to our colleagues’ hard work and vigilance that 75 per cent of patients found to have cancer are referred after only one or two consultations.’