Scots doctors want lung cancer to be top priority

Eric Byrne went to his doctor with a persistent cough, which turned out to be sign of lung cancer. Picture: Contributed
Eric Byrne went to his doctor with a persistent cough, which turned out to be sign of lung cancer. Picture: Contributed
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CANCER specialists have called for the Scottish Government to make tackling lung cancer a top priority after a report revealed that outcomes and access to treatment compared poorly with the rest of Europe.

Scotland was ranked 27th out 29 European countries for five year survival rates, despite some improvements in mortality and incidence rates, according to a report from the UK Lung Cancer Coalition (UKLCC), which explores the situation since the group was formed ten years ago.

It claimed lung cancer patients face a number of obstacles including geographic variation in access to radiotherapy while the number receiving any anti-cancer treatment has decreased from 64 to 61 per cent.

“Put simply – ten years on we are not where we should be,” said Professor Keith Kerr, ofthe Department of Pathology at Aberdeen University Medical School. “Some small progress has been made but it’s important that we do not get complacent.”

Lung cancer remains the biggest cancer killer in Scotland, claiming 4,000 lives a year. It also accounts for over a quarter of all cancer deaths in Scotland – more than twice as many as any other cancer.

Prof Kerr said: “One of the things we are up against is the stigma of smoking and that is sometimes thought to be a reason why there is a reluctance to focus on lung cancer.

“It is true that 85 to 90 per cent of patients we see with the disease were smokers but as the number of smokers goes down then this number will fall. This cancer is not just caused by smoking. It is very difficult for people to be treated as if it is their fault that they are ill.”

The report also found the number of patients assigned to specialist lung cancer nurses fell from 84 per cent to 81 per cent.

Richard Steyn, UKLCC chairman and consultant thoracic surgeon, said: “Awareness of the signs and symptoms of lung cancer is key to early diagnosis and better patient outcomes.

“Yet still a significant number of men and women in Scotland present at a very late stage of the disease.”

More needs to be done to catch the disease early and to make people aware of the dangers of smoking, the coalition warned.

Health secretary Shona Robison said progress has been made, including a £39 million investment in an early detection programme.

She said: “Smoking is the single biggest cause of avoidable lung cancer.

“Latest figures for 2014 show the smoking rate is down 3 per cent to 20 per cent. We are pursuing of measures to continue this decline, with the aim of creating a tobacco-free generation by 2034, defined as having a smoking rate of 5 per cent or lower.”

Case study

Catching lung cancer early can make a big difference to survival rates, as Eric Byrne knows only too well.

Mr Byrne, from Newmains, North Lanarkshire, was diagnosed in 2008 after his daughter forced him to see his doctor over a persistent cough.

Tests revealed that his right lung had collapsed and he had a tumour in his airway.

As it was caught at a good time, Mr Byrne was able to have chemotherapy and surgery, which stopped the cancer from spreading.

The 66-year-old, who has been given the all clear, said: “It’s important to change hearts and minds to recognise that lung cancer is a disease that can be treated if it is caught early enough. I am one of the lucky ones but if we could get people doing CT scans or at least x-rays like they do in America then we might pick up on it easier.”

The former lecturer said the stigma around lung cancer as ‘a smoker’s disease’ needed to be addressed to ensure parity in funding and support given to other cancers.