A young mother who has a rare form of lung cancer believes she was diagnosed later than she might have been because she was assumed to be too young, fit and healthy to have the disease.
But Jules Fielder, who is just 38, has stage 4 lung cancer, the most advanced stage, when tumours spread from the lungs to other sites in the body.
Although her condition is incurable, she is receiving treatment which is keeping her condition stable. She says she is ‘living her best life’ and is determined to help others navigate their way through the healthcare system to ensure they are diagnosed and treated as soon as possible.
She said: “I truly believe my age and the fact that I don’t look like someone who would have lung cancer is why I wasn’t picked up sooner. Also, I didn’t have the more commonly recognised symptoms, such as a persistent cough or breathlessness. At the time, I didn’t know that shoulder pain, back pain or a lump in your neck were signs of lung cancer, and I had all of them!
Unable to see her doctor face-to-face during the summer of 2021 due to coronavirus restrictions, Jules was given exercises to treat suspected ‘tennis elbow’. The delays in diagnosis have left her frustrated.
I know now that my body was trying to send me a message. To be honest, I’m angry that my symptoms weren’t pieced together sooner,’’ she said. ‘’Instead, I was diagnosed with sciatica for my back pain, tennis elbow for the shoulder pain and a swollen gland for the lump in my neck.Jules Fielder
Jules, who lives in Hastings, East Sussex, with her husband Paul and their 13-year-old son, Toby, is now helping to promote the latest awareness campaign by Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation, which they are calling ‘On the Right Path’.
The campaign is being launched now as November is recognised worldwide as Lung Cancer Awareness Month.
The aim is to speed up diagnostic pathways and ensure all patients receive the appropriate treatment as early as possible.
Jules added: “I still feel like I’m in a bad dream, but I have made peace with it now. I don’t live with cancer; it lives with me. I am the one in control and I am choosing to share my story to raise awareness that lung cancer can happen to anyone.
“I always thought of lung cancer as a man’s illness, maybe someone that worked in the asbestos industry, or who was a heavy smoker. We need to break those presumptions, that stigma, and I will do everything in my power to help get this message out there.”
In July this year, Ian Vizer, 63, from Basingstoke, went into hospital to have a tumour in the lower left lobe of his lung removed. Now, he too is sharing his experience to support the ‘On the Right Path’ campaign. Unlike Jules, Ian found his route to diagnosis was quite straightforward.
He had a cough, and went to his doctor, who referred him for an X-ray. Following further tests, Ian was diagnosed with stage 2 non-small cell lung cancer. There are many more treatment options available when lung cancer is diagnosed at the earlier stages.
He recalled: “Some days I still think to myself, was it all a dream? I was diagnosed with lung cancer just a few months ago and look at me now! Even the surgeon, just 24 hours after my operation, couldn’t believe how well I looked. He just stood there grinning from ear to ear.
“I feel so well. I’m out walking. The other day I was pushing my youngest grandson up a hill in his buggy. I was breathing a little bit more heavily, but I did it and I’ll keep building my lungs back up. I’m just so relieved I have the chance to do that and it’s all because I was diagnosed so early.”
However, while Ian’s diagnosis and treatment appears to have been swift and straightforward, he believes there are still lessons to be learned from how he reacted to symptoms.
He said: “My cough started in January, but I didn’t go to my doctor until April. Initially I put it down to the latest variant of Covid. But then, as it persisted, my wife and daughters-in-law kept on at me to go. But I’m stubborn, so I didn’t! It sounds ridiculous, but that’s typical of so many men, I guess.”
When he did finally go to his doctor, they also put his cough down to Covid. However, Ian was adamant that it wasn’t, and so he pushed his doctor for an X-ray.
I knew it wasn’t Covid, even though the clinical practitioner kept suggesting it probably was. I’m so proud of myself for pushing for an X-ray. Who knows what could have happened if I hadn’t?Ian Vizer
Lung cancer can be difficult to diagnose early. Symptoms can be vague and overlap with those of Covid, flu and other respiratory illnesses. On top of this, misconceptions about lung cancer and what a ‘typical’ patient might look like can mean many people aren’t diagnosed as promptly as they ought to be.
On top of this, the impact of the Covid pandemic and other structural challenges mean that the NHS is still struggling to recover from a treatment backlog. The health service is attempting to increase the number of patients being referred and tested for all forms of cancer, including lung cancer.
Around 48,500 new lung cancer cases are diagnosed in the UK every year, equivalent to 130 every day. It is the third most common cancer in the UK and the second most common cancer in women.
Early diagnosis is key to better outcomes. The sooner lung cancer is spotted, the faster doctors can treat the patient. This means that prompt action, both by healthcare professionals and the public, is more now more vital than ever, according to Paula Chadwick, chief executive of Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation.
She said: ‘’We’re clear that everyone – and this includes family doctors and specialists – needs to aware of the signs and symptoms of lung cancer, and the fact that it can affect anyone at any stage in life. The sooner such signs are spotted and acted on, the sooner a person can be set on the right path to diagnosis and treatment.
‘’This is why our campaign is so important. This year, more than ever before, we are urging everyone to help themselves and each other, by acting swiftly if they spot changes in their health. Get checked out, and make sure you get on the right path to diagnosis and treatment as quickly as possible.’’
For more information about the On the Right Path campaign, visit roycastle.org/ontherightpath.