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People fail to list persistent cough as a lung cancer warning

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by Cancer Research UK | News

30 April 2012

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An astounding lack of public awareness about lung cancer has been revealed in a Cancer Research UK study, published today.

When almost 1500 people were asked to list possible warning signs of the disease that is the most common cause of cancer death – only 77 people (five per cent) mentioned a cough that doesn’t go away. Just two people mentioned a painful cough and only three listed a change in an existing cough as a possible symptom of lung cancer.

Less than 10 per cent of those asked mentioned a persistent chest infection, tiredness or unexplained weight loss. And under 15 per cent mentioned persistent chest pain.

Almost 80 per cent failed to mention coughing up blood and 63 per cent did not list shortness of breath.

Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK’s director of information and an author of the study published in the journal Thorax, said:  “It’s very worrying to see from our survey results that when asked to think of lung cancer symptoms many common ones simply don’t come to mind for most people. A diagnosis of lung cancer is devastating, but if the disease is caught in its earliest stages treatment can improve survival.  

“We can help improve diagnosis by raising awareness of the signs people should look out for and when to get them checked by a doctor.”

When asked to list risk factors for lung cancer, under 13 per cent mentioned exposure to cigarette smoke (passive smoking). Although almost 85 per cent listed “being a smoker” as a risk factor – this suggests that 15 per cent of the British population don’t link smoking with lung cancer.

According to the study, people from poorer backgrounds had lower levels of symptom and risk factor awareness. Smokers, who are most at risk of lung cancer, showed no greater awareness of symptoms than non-smokers.

Jean King, Cancer Research UK’s director of tobacco control, said: “Given the shockingly low levels of awareness among smokers and non-smokers alike it is even more vital that we do all we can to stop a new generation growing up addicted to tobacco.

“That is why we are urging the government to put tobacco in plain packaging to stop the glossy lure of cigarette packets from seducing youngsters into smoking. Research shows how the tobacco industry relies on the power of the pack to attract brand conscious teenagers to buy their product. It’s their only legal form of marketing, and removing this silent salesman will give millions of children one less reason to start smoking.”

Eight out of 10 smokers in Britain start by the age of 19 and the habit will kill half of those who continue to smoke long-term. In 2010 tobacco caused 86 per cent of lung cancer cases. Smoking causes nearly a fifth of all cancer cases in the UK and more than a quarter of all cancer deaths.

Tobacco has killed an estimated 6.5 million Britons over the last 50 years. But today one in five British adults still smokes.


For media enquiries call the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 3469 8300, or the out of hours’ duty press officer on 07050 264059.

Simon, A., Juszczyk, D., Smyth, N., Power, E., Hiom, S., Peake, M., & Wardle, J. (2012). Knowledge of lung cancer symptoms and risk factors in the UK: development of a measure and results from a population-based survey Thorax, 67 (5), 426-432 DOI: 10.1136/thoraxjnl-2011-200898