30th November 2023

Widow of beloved entertainer ends lung cancer awareness month with call to ‘let go of the labels’

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30 years ago, the nation was shocked when beloved entertainer, Roy Castle, announced he had been diagnosed with lung cancer. As a non-smoker, many were in utter disbelief such a thing was even possible.

Decades later and has anything changed? Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation, the charity that bears his name, fears not…

“Roy was rushed into hospital one night with symptoms of a heart attack,” recalls Fiona Castle. “It turned out to be a serious virus that was believed to have been picked up on a flight from Australia two days earlier. Further checks then discovered that Roy had lung cancer, and it had probably been there for a long time.

“Our reaction was shock, obviously, as Roy was always keen to keep fit with much exercise and a good diet. The doctors were equally stunned. They couldn’t believe that he had never smoked. Roy was given just three months to live but, with treatment, I thankfully got two more years with him.”

Startling lung cancer statistics

Awareness around lung cancer remains low. A recent survey of over 2,000 adults found half (50%) of respondents believe the disease only affects a small amount of people, when in fact it is the third most common cancer and the leading cause of cancer deaths in the UK.

One in seven (14%) individuals believe that lung cancer only affects smokers, a misconception that Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation feels is perpetuated by the media.

Paula Chadwick, chief executive of Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation, said:

Whenever there is an article about lung cancer, it usually refers to ‘smokers’ and is accompanied by an image of someone with a cigarette, so I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that many people still do not know that this disease can affect anyone.

“At the beginning of November, we launched our Let’s Talk Lung Cancer roadshow with NHS England which aimed to start more open and positive conversations, raise awareness of symptoms and challenge disease misconceptions, including the belief that it is solely a ‘smokers’ disease – but this is not how it was interpreted by the media.

““Thousands of smokers in England will have the chance to learn more about lung cancer as part of a new initiative” was how the message was relayed, which in our opinion only fuels these misconceptions, feeds stigma and could potentially cost people their lives.”

History repeating

Fiona Castle, along with Cathy Brokenshire who too lost her husband, the RT James Brokenshire MP, to lung cancer in 2021, wants to put a stop to this misleading and dangerous labelling and cut the ties that intrinsically link the disease to smoking. 

Fiona and Cathy both lost their husbands to lung cancer

Just like Roy, James did not fit the expected profile of a lung cancer patient. A fellow non-smoker and just 50 years old, James was first diagnosed in 2018. Despite undergo treatment, James’s cancer returned, and he passed away in October 2021.

“It was 25 years between Roy’s diagnosis and James’s and yet we remain so ignorant about this type of cancer,” said Cathy. “It is certainly not a disease we ever thought would affect our family and now here we are, having just marked the two-year anniversary of James’s death.

Roy and James both prove that anyone can get lung cancer, so it is about time that we lose these labels and rewriting the narrative in order to save more lives.”

Both wives are firm supporters of the charity and last year came together to back its calls for national screening. Cathy has also launched the James Brokenshire research fellowship with the charity to help develop the next generation of lung cancer researchers.

Reflecting on the announcement of screening in July, Cathy said: “Screening is a momentous step forward, but it does mean that lung cancer is fixed now we have screening. Screening would not have saved James, and it would not have saved Roy. This is what makes research, and the work Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation does in raising awareness so important.”

Paula Chadwick continues, “We are so grateful to Fiona and Cathy for their ongoing support, but it is frightening how little has changed in the decades between their experiences.

Lung cancer is still so intrinsically linked to smoking than it shrouds the other causes and risk factors so that even when symptoms are pointing to it, it’s not considered early enough.

“Yes, smoking causes around 70% of lung cancers, but it also causes at least 14 other types of cancers including oesophageal, pancreatic and bowel.

“This labelling is dangerous. It can delay diagnoses for people who haven’t smoked. It also fuels stigma by feeding feelings of guilt and shame in people who have smoked so much so that they are discouraged from seeking help.

“So, it’s time to let go of the labels. It’s time to cut ties with the stereotypes and paint a realistic portrait of who can get lung cancer.”