Lung cancer symptoms can be subtle. So subtle, in fact, that it can be easy to dismiss them. But a cough that just won’t go away? That should NEVER be ignored.
Shan lost her former husband to lung cancer. Yet, when she developed a persistent cough, it was only thanks to her GP practice receptionist that she saw a doctor in time to be diagnosed at an early stage.
Shan had noticed her cough around three or four weeks earlier. As she was about to go on holiday, she called into her doctor’s surgery, hoping to be seen before she went away.
This was in early 2015. The previous Boxing Day, the streets of her home town, Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire, had been submerged by floods. Like many of the townsfolk, Shan had helped with the clean-up operation after the floods subsided. In the process, most had to wade through some badly polluted water.
In the weeks that followed, the town’s GP practice was kept extremely busy dealing with scores of cases of respiratory infections. Shan thought her own cough was just such a ‘bug’ – but it wasn’t:
“The cough actually seemed to be getting better, but I thought it would be good idea to have it checked out by a doctor anyway.
“But the receptionist couldn’t find me an appointment with my usual doctor before my holiday. I would just have left it, but she insisted that a cough like mine should be looked into so she squeezed me into see another doctor at a different surgery. And that is where I got lucky.
“The doctor I saw was sufficiently concerned to send me for a chest x-ray which showed up something that shouldn’t have been there. So they sent me for another x-ray, and at that point the system really started to swing into action. I had CT scans and a biopsy and it started to look more and more likely that it was lung cancer.
“I realised from the way the doctor spoke to me that she thought it was serious. I had a tumour, but there could have been various reasons for it. It still wasn’t conclusive.
“It was a long process and a worrying time, both for me and for my partner. It became so disruptive to our normal lives that we just cancelled everything and put life on hold until we knew for sure.
“The most awful part of it all was thinking about my daughter, because her father had died of lung cancer the year before and she had looked after him for months before he passed away. I just couldn’t face the thought of having to tell her about my own illness.
“But I reasoned with myself that I was actually feeling ok, I had no idea there’d been anything wrong with me whereas he’d been noticeably ill for three or four years before he died. So hopefully they had caught mine early and it would have a different outcome – which it did, completely different.
“I was referred to the surgical team at St James’s Hospital in Leeds, where the doctors outlined different treatment options, with all the advantages and disadvantages. I thought that losing a chunk of my lung would leave me permanently disabled. I thought about it all, and when I spoke to the radiographer the following week, he passed on the thought that, if it was him, he wouldn’t hesitate – he’d have the operation.
“So the following week, I had surgery. They took out one lobe of my lung and the associated lymph nodes. And only after they did biopsy tests on the tissue they took were they able to confirm that it was lung cancer – and that they’d got it all.
“Karen made it possible for me to say to my daughter, you’re not going to lose another parent to lung cancer. I can’t thank her enough.”
Shan now has regular check-ups and the medical team will continue to monitor her progress for the next five years. She takes part in our online forum, replying to posts about surgery and treatments similar to her own.
She added, “I am fitter now after my surgery than ever before. I’ve never done a 5k run before!
“I was shocked to see in the paper the other day how low the 10-year survival rates for lung cancer are, and how little they’ve improved over the last decade. I’m glad I didn’t see them before my operation – but I realise that the survival rates for people with cancers found early, like mine, are incomparably better”.
So she’s come a long way in the past couple of years. Shan knows how much she owes to the woman whose diligence paved the way for the rest of her lung cancer journey. Yet she had never met up with the receptionist – or, to use the proper job title, Patient Services Advisor – who went the extra mile to arrange an appointment with the doctor that fateful day. Never, that is, until August of this year, when she finally sat down for a cup of tea and a chat with Karen Gibson.
Karen has been with the practice for over eleven years now, and so is well placed to use her experience and common sense to help the patients who come into the surgery. She lost a much loved relative to cancer a few months before Shan came into the surgery – something, she thinks, that may have made her extra aware of the need to have seemingly minor symptoms checked out properly.
“I can remember Shan coming in. A lot of people were coming in at that time with bad lung infections, it went on for about three or four months – we had a lot of calls. But there was something in the back of my mind. It’s just instinct.
“It could have been any one of us. Like they say in the ‘Be Clear on Cancer’ campaign, we know if someone’s had a cough for that long, they need to be seen. So when I knew she was going away on holiday, I knew we had to get her sorted. So it was a case of finding a doctor who could see her soon enough.
“It feels strange to know that what I did made such a difference!”
Shan advises anyone with any of the key symptoms to go to their doctor and get themselves checked out. She often engages with other people affected by lung cancer on the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation online forum on the Health Unlocked platform. You can visit that at https://healthunlocked.com/lungcancer