Lung cancer

Lung cancer is one of the most common and serious types of cancer. Lung cancer is the fourth most common cancer among men in Northern Ireland and the third most common among women. See your GP if you have any of the symptoms below.

Symptoms of lung cancer

Symptoms of lung cancer develop as the condition progresses. There are usually no signs or symptoms in the early stages.

The main symptoms of lung cancer include:

  • a cough that doesn’t go away after three weeks
  • a long-standing cough that gets worse
  • persistent chest infections
  • coughing up blood
  • an ache or pain when breathing or coughing
  • persistent breathlessness
  • persistent tiredness or lack of energy
  • loss of appetite or unexplained weight loss

If you have any of these, you should see your GP.

Less common symptoms of lung cancer include:

  • changes in the appearance of your fingers, such as becoming more curved or their ends becoming larger (this is known as finger clubbing)
  • a high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above
  • difficulty swallowing or pain when swallowing
  • wheezing
  • a hoarse voice
  • swelling of your face or neck
  • persistent chest or shoulder pain

Lung cancer can cause additional symptoms if it spreads to other parts of your body like your brain, liver, bones or lymph nodes (glands).

Symptoms of advanced lung cancer can include:

  • bone pain
  • jaundice (yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes)
  • seizures (fits)
  • dizziness
  • drowsiness
  • feeling mentally confused
  • swelling of the lymph nodes in your chest and neck
  • a feeling of weakness in your arms and legs

When to see your GP

See your GP if you have symptoms of lung cancer, see above.

Your GP will ask about your general health and what symptoms you've been experiencing.

You may be asked to have a blood test to rule out some of the possible causes of your symptoms, such as a chest infection.

A chest X-ray is usually the first test used to diagnose lung cancer.

If your chest X-ray suggests you may have lung cancer, you should be referred to a specialist (if you haven't already) in chest conditions such as lung cancer.

Causes of lung cancer

Most cases of lung cancer are caused by smoking, although people who have never smoked can also develop the condition.

Types of lung cancer

Cancer that begins in the lungs is called primary lung cancer.

There are two main types of primary lung cancer. They are:

  • non-small-cell lung cancer – the most common type, accounting for more than 80% of cases
  • small-cell lung cancer – a less common type that usually spreads faster than non-small-cell lung cancer

The type of lung cancer you have determines which treatments are recommended.

Treating lung cancer

Treatment depends on the type of cancer, how far it's spread and how good your general health is.

If the condition is diagnosed early and the cancerous cells are confined to a small area, surgery to remove the affected area of lung is usually recommended.

If surgery is unsuitable due to your general health, radiotherapy to destroy the cancerous cells may be recommended instead.

If the cancer has spread too far for surgery or radiotherapy to be effective, chemotherapy is usually used.

Preventing lung cancer

If you smoke, the best way to help prevent lung cancer and other serious conditions is to stop smoking as soon as possible.

However long you have been smoking, it's always worth quitting. Every year you don't smoke decreases your risk of getting serious illnesses, such as lung cancer.

After 10 years of not smoking, your chances of developing lung cancer falls to half that of someone who smokes.

Your GP or pharmacist can also give you help and advice about stopping smoking.

Diet

Research suggests that eating a low-fat, high-fibre diet, including at least five portions a day of fresh fruit and vegetables and plenty of whole grains, can reduce your risk of lung cancer, as well as other types of cancer and heart disease.

Exercise

There's strong evidence to suggest that regular exercise can lower the risk of developing lung cancer and other types of cancer.

Adults should do at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week.

Who's affected

Lung cancer mainly affects older people. It's rare in people younger than 40, and the rates of lung cancer rise sharply with age. A total of 75% of patients diagnosed in Northern Ireland with lung cancer are over the age of 65 years. Incidence rates are highest among men aged 85-89 and among women aged 75-79.

Although people who have never smoked can develop lung cancer, smoking is the main cause (accounting for over 85% of cases).

This is because smoking involves regularly inhaling a number of different toxic substances.

Outlook for lung cancer

Lung cancer doesn't usually cause noticeable symptoms until it's spread through the lungs or into other parts of the body. This means the outlook for the condition isn't as good as many other types of cancer.

Overall, about 1 in 3 people with the condition live for at least a year after they're diagnosed and about 1 in 10 people live at least 5 years.

Survival rates can vary widely, depending on how far the cancer has spread at the time of diagnosis. Early diagnosis can make a big difference.

Living with lung cancer

Lung cancer can affect your daily life in different ways, depending on what stage it's at and the treatment you're having.

Although not all these steps work for everybody, there are several ways you can find support to help you cope (also see more useful links below):

  • talk to your friends and family
  • talk to other people in the same situation
  • know about your condition
  • don't try to do too much
  • make time for yourself

 

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information, read terms and conditions.

This page was published April 2018

This page is due for review April 2019

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