15th November 2017

Joyce Robinson

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You do not need to smoke to get lung cancer. Julie Robinson knows that all too well after losing her mum, Joyce to lung cancer – an extremely health-conscious lady, who did everything she could to live a long and full life. Julie shares her experience of losing her mum to lung cancer and how it became the elephant in the room…

“My mum was quite simply the most wonderful person I have ever met. She was the kindest, most balanced, positive, giving and selfless person and without a doubt, the best mother to me and my sister and wife to my father that any of us could have ever wished for. She had a wonderful sense of humour and an amazing zest for life. She always made the most of every situation, had a steely determination and took enjoyment from life wherever she could.

She was extremely health-conscious. She stayed slim and fit her entire life and was very interested in healthy-eating. She stuck to a very healthy diet, eating plenty of fruit and veg, cooked everything from scratch, always tried to cut down on saturated fats, sugar, red meat and processed foods. She only drank alcohol occasionally and had never smoked. She was determined to do everything in her power to live a long, full and healthy life.

She did have symptoms. These started with bad breath, then needed to regularly clear her throat. She lost quite a lot of weight, which wasn’t particularly noticeable at the time. She also visibly aged towards the last few years of her life. I urged her to go to the doctors about the throat-clearing symptoms. Finally, she agreed and was diagnosed with nasal polyps, for which she was given a nasal spray.

When the symptoms continued, she went back to her GP but was told the symptoms were nothing to worry about. I guess they looked at her lifestyle and didn’t contemplate that her symptoms could be related to lung cancer. As a result, my mum convinced herself she was wasting her GP’s time and that there was nothing to worry about.

However, when her symptoms worsened and her voice became affected (it seemed to deepen and the throat clearing seemed to be more regular), I urged her to go back again. Her doctor arranged for her to be given a head scan (they still didn’t suspect lung cancer), but this never actually happened as it was around this time that pains in her shoulders started.

The pain was unbearable for my mum and she was having difficulty sleeping. She still wasn’t sent for further tests, but instead diagnosed with polymyalgia and given steroid tablets. At this point her doctor said to her: ‘Put it this way, you’re not going to die’, which was unbelievable really, considering they hadn’t carried out extensive tests. When the pain increased and she returned yet again to her GP, finally the prospect of cancer was considered and she was sent for blood tests, a biopsy and a CT scan – as a matter of urgency!

Lung cancer became the ‘elephant in the room’. As much as I wanted to remain positive, I immediately feared the worst. A good friend of mine had just lost his wife to lung cancer so I knew just how serious and aggressive it can be.

Lung cancer kills quickly. We need more research. We need early diagnosis. We need to save lives

The results came back with the most unimaginable news – lung cancer; which, by then had spread to her liver, pancreas and lymph nodes. By the time the cancer was diagnosed (around three to four years from the date that she first visited her GP), it was stage IV and terminal. Mum was given six months to live, with a possible extension to nine months with chemotherapy. Never in our wildest dreams could we have imagined this would happen to our vibrant, active mum, this lady who had worked so hard all of her life to stay fit and healthy. The diagnosis completely devastated our family. Our wonderful mum, who was the kingpin of our family, was going to die.

Mum didn’t want to talk about it. She withdrew into herself and would just say ‘I know they say I am going to die but I don’t think I will. I’ll get through it’, which was typical of the stoic woman that she was. Lung cancer became the ‘elephant in the room’. As much as I wanted to remain positive, I immediately feared the worst. A good friend of mine had just lost his wife to lung cancer so I knew just how serious and aggressive it can be.

I tried to encourage Mum to go to a lung cancer support group, but she wasn’t interested. She was in shock, but I also think being grouped with a bunch of smokers would to her have been quite insulting. Mum was vehemently anti-smoking, so to die of what is perceived as a smokers’ illness would I’m sure have been the final insult.

Mum died on 6 January 2013, which was incidentally my Dad’s birthday – just five and a half weeks following her diagnosis. She was 71.

Following my mum’s death I called her GP to question why they hadn’t diagnosed her lung cancer. He was extremely apologetic and advised that they simply did not recognise my mum’s symptoms as being lung-cancer related, as they had not come across these symptoms before.

The fact is, if my mum could contract lung cancer, then anybody can. It is not just a smokers’ disease and the sooner we lose this stereotype, the more chance there is of saving lives.

My biggest advice to everyone is to familiarise yourselves with all of the symptoms of lung cancer, not just ‘the cough’. If anybody you know has ongoing strange symptoms that could be lung cancer, even if they don’t smoke, persuade them to go to their GP and actually tell them that their symptoms could be lung cancer related.

Don’t assume that your GP knows all the symptoms.

If the symptoms continue, insist on having a CT scan and or blood tests and tell your GP that you want to be tested for lung cancer.

Don’t let lung cancer become the elephant in your room, because if it’s caught early it can be treated.”