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Finding Lung Cancer Early - What Symptoms Should You Watch For?


Updated June 04, 2014

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  • Knowing that survival is better when lung cancer is diagnosed in the earlier stages, it breaks my heart to know how often lung cancer is already in the advanced stages at the time of diagnosis. Roughly 30% of people have stage 3 lung cancer and nearly 40% are at stage 4 at the time of diagnosis. How can we change these numbers so that the majority of people are instead diagnosed in the early stages of lung cancer?

    CT screening may be effective for some people, and guidelines now suggest that screening people between the ages of 55 and 74 with a 30 pack-year or more of smoking can save lives.

    But even with screening, we're going to miss a lot of people. A recent study analyzed data to predict what percent of cancers would be detected early by adding in regular screening based on these guidelines. The answer is about 30% -- certainly better than no screening, but leaving at least 70% of people without an effective screening tool for lung cancer.

    So what are we left with? Being aware of the symptoms. But what are those symptoms?

    Researchers in the UK decided to look at that question. They looked at over 12,000 people with lung cancer to see if any of these people had symptoms suggestive of lung cancer prior to their diagnosis. It was found that many of these people did have symptoms in the 4 to 12 month period preceding their diagnosis.

    Symptoms that were independently predictive of lung cancer included:

    Certainly if you have any of these symptoms, and especially if you have risk factors such as a history of smoking, exposure to radon in your home, a family history of lung cancer or exposure to cancer causing chemicals at work (occupational exposures), make sure to talk to your doctor. It might mean making a few extra visits, but if we are going to increase the number of people who are diagnosed in the earlier more treatable stages of the disease and don't fit the criteria for CT screening, we need to make symptom awareness a huge priority.

    Photo: istockphoto.com


    Iven-Omofoman, B. et al. Using socio-demographic and early clinical features in general practice to identify people with lung cancer earlier. Thorax. 2013 Jan 15. (Epub ahead of print)

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