Yesterday, it was revealed that at least 14,000 fewer people have been referred for lung cancer tests since March. But, to us, this is so much more than numbers. It is about people. People like Dipti and Keshu. People like Rupert and Joanna.
This is exactly why we have taken action and launched the STILL HERE campaign, to try and prevent more of these heartbreaking experiences.
On 22nd August, Keshu Lakhman Odedra went into hospital after finally being diagnosed with lung cancer. 10 days later, he had died, leaving his family, including his only daughter, Dipti, utterly bereft:
Dad sent me a selfie from hospital just to say, ‘I’m okay, don’t worry’. He was set to start treatment on the 5th but he didn’t make it. By the 2nd September, he was gone.
The rawness of this sudden loss remains with Dipti, a year later. Despite this, she has bravely shared her story as part of Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation’s awareness campaign, Still Here, to try and stop other families from going through what she is going through.
“I wish we’d questioned all these things when it was all happening. The cough was there, and we never questioned it. I wish we’d pushed harder with the doctors and asked for an X-ray or CT scan. It just took so long, and we’ve lost him as a result. I don’t know if he would still be here if we had known about it or pushed a bit harder.
It’s still so hard to talk about Dad. I miss him every day but if, by doing so, I could prevent just one person from losing their life that would be so good. No one wants to lose their Dad.”
Delays cost lives
Lung cancer is a disease which can be difficult to diagnosis. Symptoms, including a persistent cough, breathlessness and unexplained fatigue, can so easily be dismissed as something less sinister. As a result, people can spend months, even years, going back and forth to the doctor.
But it is these delays that are proving so costly as Rupert Pigot sadly knows. His wife, Joanna, was eventually diagnosed with terminal lung cancer after having a cough for a year:
“Jo had been to the GP a few times about a persistent cough. Because she was so young and a non-smoker, the GPs were adamant there was nothing wrong with her other than just having a cough. We have two young children so it was likely she was picking up bugs from them and it would pass. Then she coughed up blood. That’s when things were finally escalated, and she was sent for scans.”
Jo was diagnosed with incurable lung cancer and passed away three years later.
We must act now
During the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, cancer referrals declined by up to 84% as people followed the government’s “stay at home” messages and avoided visiting their doctor even if they felt unwell.
However, whilst other cancers now begin to bounce back, lung cancer rates continue to fall significantly short, with only 65% of the expected number of ‘two-week-wait’ referrals currently being made. This is far lower than rates for other cancers.
Add this to the 53% decline in A&E admissions during the peak of the pandemic – around a third of lung cancer cases are only diagnosed after an emergency presentation – as well as the pause on lung health checks and the reduction of routine monitoring and x-rays for surgery which, again, account for a significant proportion of diagnoses and it indicates 14,000 people – 14,000 Joannas, 14,000 Keshus – could, in fact, be the tip of the iceberg.
Paula Chadwick is the chief executive of Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation:
“We have known about the heartbreaking numbers surrounding lung cancer, as highlighted in yesterday’s press release [Thursday 17th September].
They are heartbreaking because, to us, they are so much more than numbers. They are people who will potentially now have to face a terminal diagnosis. They are people who will have to watch their loved ones die prematurely. They are people like Dipti, Rupert and the thousands of other husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, sons, daughters, siblings and friends.
That is why we have taken action, and launched the Still Here campaign – because lung cancer is very much still here. Lung cancer was not cancelled. It will not wait patiently for the pandemic to be over. It will thrive on anonymity of Covid and take thousands of lives along the way.”
Around 46,000 people are diagnosed with lung cancer in the UK every year, with nearly 36,000 dying of the disease.
However, there had been significant progress in recent years. Highest ever levels of research spending, more life lengthening treatments and lung health checks have all contributed to an increase in lung cancer survival rates, most notably 10-year survival which has now doubled.
But after these three steps forward, the coronavirus pandemic could send us four steps back. Paula concludes:
“Awareness of lung cancer, its symptoms and who it can affect – and that’s everyone by the way – were already poor. The overlapping symptoms with Covid now present another obstacle in the way of early diagnosis.
Lung cancer is our nation’s biggest cancer killer and, unless work together to raise vital awareness of the disease, it will continue to ruin the lives of too many.”