28th January 2020

Research confirms GPS should recognise cough and shortness of breath as potential signs of lung cancer

View all Early detection

GPs are being urged to consider shortness of breath and a persistent cough as potential predictors of lung cancer, after a study found they were becoming more common as the first symptom in diagnosis.

The research was led by the University of Exeter Medical School and published in the British Journal of General Practice.

It aimed to improve potentially life-saving early diagnosis through analysing which symptoms patients present first to their doctor. The team examined 27,795 records of adults diagnosed with lung cancer between 2000 and 2017, at more than 600 UK GP practices.

Over that 17-year period, the team found an increase in both coughing and shortness of breath as the first symptom patients reported when they went on to be diagnosed with lung cancer.

The study also found a decrease in patients who reported the first symptom to be coughing up blood or loss of appetite.

Our Director of Prevention, Information & Support, Lorraine Dallas, sees this as an important reminder that we should all be aware that seemingly minor symptoms can be early signs of lung cancer.

She said, “This research is really helpful. It backs up what we’ve been saying, that If you’ve had a cough for more than three weeks, you should consult your family doctor. Similarly, shortness of breath should also be investigated.

“We’d also urge GPs to recognise that cough and shortness of breath are signs that could indicate lung cancer. Doctors need to keep that possibility in mind no matter what the age, overall health or lifestyle of the patient”.

“If you have any symptoms, visit your doctor. Chances are it is nothing serious, but it is always worth getting yourself checked. You are not wasting anyone’s time. Remember, anyone with lungs can get lung cancer.”

Often it can be difficult for family doctors to recognise that a patient who doesn’t fit the ‘stereotype’ of a lung cancer patient (an older man with a history of smoking) can be at risk.

This is why we launched our ‘Like Me’ campaign, to raise and refresh awareness among healthcare professionals as well as the wider population.

It can come as a shock to realise that younger people can also be at risk of getting lung cancer; people like restaurateur Saima Thompson, who was just 29 when she diagnosed.

Donate to Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation

“At the time I was 29 and for me the plan was to start a family, buy a house, progress in my career. Never did lung cancer, especially an incurable diagnosis, come to mind!”

Saima, living with lung cancer

What are the symptoms of lung cancer?

There are many different symptoms of lung cancer. Some of them, for instance a persistent cough, are more common and widely recognised than others, such as clubbed fingers.

Here are some signs and symptoms to look out for:

– Persistent cough that lasts three weeks or more

– Breathlessness

– Repeat chest infections

– Chest and/or shoulder pain

– Loss of appetite and/or unexplained weight loss

– Change in a long-term cough, or a cough that gets worse

– Coughing up blood

– Unexplained fatigue or lack of energy

– Hoarseness

– Finger clubbing

– Blood clots

We know that going to see your doctor about such symptoms can be worrying, but the sooner lung cancer is caught, the better the chances of survival. This is why we launched a special awareness campaign that we called ‘Face Your Fear’ to encourage people to act quickly if they spot symptoms.

It can make all the difference… Just ask Joe Crofts:

“Your imagination is a terrible thing. You imagine the worst, you can’t really imagine the best.”

Joe, living with lung cancer

Joe was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2011 aged just 35; however, after surgery, he recovered well. So well, in fact, that he took up a new hobby – cycling. This led him to him taking part in a four-day cycle ride from London to Paris. Not bad for a bloke with part of his lung missing!