Lung cancer cell - image courtesy of the LRI EM unit
I was 22 when my father told me he had been diagnosed with lung cancer.
It was a moment in my life I will never forget, like a large boulder had been lodged in the pit of my stomach, and it stayed there.
A moment when you realise there is nothing you can say or think or do to change what is happening to someone you love.
Because I happened to be studying for a PhD in cancer research at the time, I knew more than most about his chances. And they weren’t good.
Fewer than one in ten people diagnosed with lung cancer are alive after five years.
Nobody wants to lose their Dad. My father had always been there for me – he was the person who showed me what it means to take responsibility for your life, to be determined and to work for what you want.
He was absolutely intrinsic to everything that ‘family’ means to me. A life without him seemed unthinkable, not only for myself, but also for my mother who was faced with losing her husband of 30 years.
These things happen to people every day, but you don’t really understand how it feels until it happens to you.
An uncomfortable truth
Now I work in research communications at Cancer Research UK. Every day I get to see the incredible research we’re funding first-hand.
I hear about the difference our progress is making to people with cancer right now and I witness the dedication and efforts of the public and our fundraising teams to raise the money we need to pay for this research.
I also get a real insight into some of the more controversial cancer topics.
Lung cancer is very much one of these.
Lung cancer is very common. It causes a fifth of all cancer deaths. But despite this, fundraisers and the media don’t often talk about it.
This is because of the negative perception surrounding the disease – the perception that people who smoke have ’caused’ their own cancer, or that they are in some way to blame for it. This makes lung cancer a difficult talking point.
Blame is not appropriate – anyone can get cancer
For my job, I need a comprehensive understanding of the causes of cancer.
Research shows us that the genes you inherit and the lifestyle you lead are important contributors.
Understanding the link between cancer and lifestyle is helpful because it means we can give people useful information about the things they can do to reduce their risk of getting cancer in the first place.
What it doesn’t mean is that people who get cancer are to blame for it.
People who have sex don’t ‘deserve’ cervical cancer; people who don’t exercise regularly don’t ‘deserve’ breast cancer and people who don’t eat a healthy balanced diet don’t ‘deserve’ bowel cancer. These things can play a role in cancer development, but cancer is complicated – it’s not a simple cause and effect.
You can make all the right lifestyle choices and, though this will stack the odds in your favour, you can still be unlucky enough to get cancer.
Certainly, not smoking is absolutely the best thing you can do to reduce your risk of getting cancer. But more than one in 10 lung cancers are not related to tobacco.
Anyone can get cancer. But regardless of how they got it, nobody deserves to die from cancer. People with the disease need effective treatments to get them better.
That is why we work tirelessly to find new ways to tackle the disease.
The tobacco industry makes more than £3,500 for each person killed by smoking and continues to re-invest profits in sophisticated marketing tactics to lure the next generation of smokers.
So it shouldn’t surprise us that people start smoking. It shouldn’t surprise us that young people sometimes make inadvisable choices. Unfortunately some of those choices can have very serious consequences.
Every year the equivalent of 6,500 classrooms of 11-15 year olds start smoking in the UK. Addiction keeps them smoking into adulthood, where it then kills half of long-term users.
My Dad smoked when he was young. He gave up when my Mum became pregnant with my older brother. Perhaps my Dad’s cancer was linked to smoking in his 20s – perhaps not.
Either way, I don’t believe he deserved lung cancer and I don’t believe he deserved to die.
Getting cancer diagnosed at an earlier stage is crucial
There is so much that can be done to improve the outlook for people with lung cancer.
If people are diagnosed at an early stage they are far more likely to survive. Around 70 per cent of people diagnosed with stage I lung cancer will survive for at least one year. This drops to less than 15 per cent if diagnosed at stage IV.
Currently people are diagnosed late far too often. We need people to know about the early signs and symptoms of lung cancer (such as a persistent cough, being short of breath or having an ache or pain when breathing or coughing).
And we have to get the message through that they need to get to a doctor as soon as they can – unfortunately at the moment people often don’t.
My father was one of the very few lucky ones. He noticed some blood when he coughed and went straight to the doctor. Within weeks he was in surgery to have a large portion of his right lung removed.
It was an upsetting time for all of us and it took him some time to recover. But ten years on, he has the ‘all clear’. That’s ten years extra we’ve had as a family.
Two years ago his first granddaughter arrived – and he takes great pleasure in spoiling her rotten.
He has two more grandchildren on the way. The idea that he might have missed out on knowing them would be a tragic loss for everyone involved. But this is happening to thousands of families across the UK every year.
We’ve got a lot to do…
Early diagnosis is a big part of the battle, but we also need better treatments for people who already have the disease. And of course, we need to reduce the number of people smoking and continue our tobacco control efforts to help prevent people getting the disease in the first place.
Increasing the focus on lung cancer is a key priority for us – and while there are many challenges to deal with, it’s also an area with so much potential for improvement.
Pioneering projects such as our new TRACERx study hold incredible promise for changing our understanding of lung cancer and leading to new ways to diagnose and treat the disease, so that more people survive and more families, like mine, can appreciate having them around.
But one of the most important things we need to do is change how we think about lung cancer. We need to shift the negative perceptions around the disease and get people talking about it.
We all need to buy in to the idea that nobody deserves to die from cancer.
Laura Bell is a senior science communications manager at Cancer Research UK
bow June 21, 2014
My lung cancer was missed by consultant at my local hospital as I was 48 years old and hadn’t smoked. It is now at stage 4 and can only be managed. I feel annoyed that GPs are highlighted as missing cases, this was not the case with me GP excellent.
Angela Schooley April 23, 2014
It’s good to hear that not everyone who is diagnosed with lung cancer dies. Sadly, that was not the case with a very dear friend who was diagnosed with pleura malignancy end September last year and died early February despite receiving some treatment. She had been fit and healthy and it seemed a cruel fate especially as the first grandchild is due end May.
Freda clark April 15, 2014
I had lung cancer in 2013 in march I had some of my lung removed I am doing fine I went to the doctor I had coughed for 3 weeks and thanks to my go and Southampton hospital i had excellent prompt treatment for which I am so gratefull
Mandy Mifsud April 9, 2014
My husband died 6 weeks after being diagnosed with lung cancer. he was a non smoker, very fit and healthy 52 year old. Started with a cough and breathing difficulties! Doctors were looking for an infection rather than cancer. My husband was on a ventilator a week before he died never even knowing he had cancer. We only knew he had the disease three days before the ventilator was switched off.
Teresa tully April 8, 2014
i was diagnoised with breast cancer 3years ago in may i have never smoked never drank and eat healthy,it is the luck of the draw and catching it early,i am now a fund raiser and have raised £16000 since being diagnoised. lets get rid of it for good.
karen collyer April 5, 2014
My Dad died of Mesothelioma which is lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. He had never smoked. He only lasted 7 months after diagnosis, and removing his lung or part of it was not an option as he asked the surgeon to do this and was told it couldn’t be done. My friends Dad also died of the same type of cancer and he also didn’t last long after diagnosis. Both were fit and healthy strong men and neither deserved to die in this way.
Anne April 4, 2014
I completely understand what Laura means by the negative vibes you receive when you say that you are being treated for lung cancer. There is a real stigma with lung cancer and I used to detect the negative vibes from some of the medical profession too. I was diagnosed 7 years ago and because of the fantastic treatment I am a survivor. I had stopped smoking 22 years before my diagnosis and as an adult led an active and healthy lifestyle. Perhaps being brought up in an industrial inner city in the 1950’s played a major role in the damage to my lungs. I felt angry and depressed at times that people felt that they could make a judgement of me when I said the dreaded words Lung Cancer.
Sara April 4, 2014
When I was diagnosed with kidney cancer 10 years ago, I was swimming 3 times a week, eating healthily, never smoked had the perfect BMI and hardly ever had an alcoholic drink. Two years later I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I now have Lung cancer. What I do know is that I have done nothing to cause my cancer and that anyone who feels they have brought it on themselves should not waste energy thinking they have. All I believe is the healthy lifestyle helps one fight it not prevent it.
Pauline Dixon April 4, 2014
My Mum died of Mesothelioma, which is particularly cruel as it lies dormant for decades. Because she had previously been a smoker she was diagnosed as having COPD when she went to the GP with a bad cough and breathing problems. After nearly a year she was sent for a lung x-ray which showed fluid in her lungs and finally she was diagnosed. She lasted an amazing 18 months before she succumbed.
Iva McCartney April 4, 2014
So glad that your dad is still enjoying life and his family! X
As for people somehow “deserving” to get cancer – no, it’s mostly just the luck of the draw. I was diagnosed 2 years ago with breast cancer. I was 46, perfect weight, very fit, breastfed my two kids, never drank, smoked or took any drugs, and had reasonable diet. It still got me.
Just luck, good or bad.
Gower Tan April 3, 2014
Laura thank you for sharing this and your expert insights. My dad died from lung cancer, having smoked all his life bar the last three years. Like so many others, he was diagnosed too late for much to be done. Regrettably I also smoked from 13 until I eventually managed to stop, aged 40, after years of desperately trying. I used to have a sense that if I developed lung cancer, somehow it was something I deserved. Then a couple of years ago, I became a Campaigns Ambassador for CRUK, and over the past two years I learned a huge amount about cancer, tobacco manufacturers, tobacco control policy, about legislation, about cigarette branding, about protecting children, about addiction….. I have spent time campaigning in parliament, with MP’s, peers, at party conferences, with my local government and community. I am passionate about protecting future generations and I don’t know a single smoker who doesn’t with he or she had never started. We know it is a childhood addiction, not an adult choice. I never felt that my dad deserved to get lung cancer, but it wasn’t until I understood just how the tobacco industry worked that I felt the same way about myself and I couldn’t agree more about the need to change how we think about lung cancer and to remove the negative perceptions that exist.
Paul April 3, 2014
Wow. So glad to hear your father is doing well and just shows the stigma attached with lung cancer and the misconceptions
Mary Lloyd April 3, 2014
My mum had a benign cyst on her lung growing from 1cm to 7cm in 2 years until it was too late. My mum had ct scans but no bronchoscopy or pet scan. My mum was 65. Her grandson just coming to his 21st birthday and about to graduate, her granddaughter almost 18. I’m lost without my mum, my best friend. The so called specialists sat around tables in meeting making decisions not to undertake investigations. My mum is not their loss; she’s their margin of error and an educational statistic.
Liz Clark April 3, 2014
I was diagnosed with lung cancer 9 months ago following an
x-ray which my GP suggested because of a persistent cough. Although I had been a smoker but had stopped for 5 years I still felt that this was a punishment. However my wonderful family said I was not to mention this again. Fortunately I was able to have surgery to remove my lung and the cancer was contained. I’m recovering well and I’m extremely grateful that I was referred for that x-ray and my cancer was diagnosed early.
Pauline April 3, 2014
My dad saw the early signs, a persistent cough, and went to the doctors but despite being an ex-smoker was sent away with antibiotics for a chest infection. Needless to say the antibiotics didn’t work & he saw a 2nd doctor who knew better & moved into action straight away. Too late though for my wonderful father. I don’t blame the 1st doctor, and I don’t dwell on a different outcome, but what about those that see the early signs and are turned away?
Vicky April 3, 2014
First of all I’m soooooooooo pleased your dad pulled through & got the all clear, that really is awesome!!. Absolutely NO-ONE deserves to die of cancer, NO-ONE deserves to have this awful disease at all. Cancer has claimed so many of my family members the word ‘CANCER’ terrifies the absolute life out of me. I remember in 2008 sitting next to my dad who was 59 & the doctors telling him he was going to die. I remember walking out of that hospital feeling like everyone was staring at us, like they all knew. Worst of al I remember how I felt, I also dreaded having to tell my children, having to tell my brother who lived over 200 miles away from me & our father. The pain was indescribable!! However little did I know it was going to get much much worse!! In feb 2008 my father was diagnosed with SC Lung Cander, he passed away in July, a few days after my birthday. A few months after that my uncle, my dads brother then also passed away from Lung Cancer. Both of these men smoked but still did NOT deserve to die. In January 2009, just 6 months after my dad passed away my brother rang to tell me he had lung cancer………..he was 32 years old & never smoked……… They think it was caused by scarring on his lungs from childhood diseases & then problems with his blood & weakened immune system…….it took the doctors 18 months to diagnose him as by text book he was just too young. Obviously they were wrong. Have you ever felt your heart break, well mine did that week I remember crying as though I would never stop, the pain I felt inside was too much to bear, I still hadnt come to terms with my dad & now I have to watch my baby brother, my only brother die!! He fought with everything he could, he did the chemo, the trial……..everything, after all he had 3 young children one being less than a year old. He fought hard but finally the cancer won & he died 3 years later aged 35. His dream was to take his youngest son to nursery just as he had his other 2 children. He didnt get to do that but instead wave him off from his hospital bed that was in his living room as he was getting to the end.
Anyone can get cancer, I am told because of how many relatives I have lost to this awful disease I am at high risk. They have not all died from Lung Cancer, its been Liver, Brain, Skin, Kidney. At the end of the day its Cancer, it has no morals, it doesnt care how old you are, what colour you are, whether you smoke or drink, whether you are good or bad………..its only mission is to take over & destroy. This needs to be stopped. I pay monthly to Cancer Research but always feel thats not enough but I also know that every little bit helps these amazing people trying to find a cure.
The only thing at fault 7 to blame when someone gets cancer is the CANCER itself!!!!!
Alison April 3, 2014
Thank you for that information and I am so glad your story has a happy ending. Unfortunately many lung cancer stories do not. Both of my parents died of lung cancer aged 59 and 61. Neither were smokers. Unfortunately there isn’t a lot of knowledge from GPs about when to refer. My mum had all the symptoms mentioned above for 4 months before being diagnosed and by then it was too late for treatment. My dad had some treatment but his was still caught very late. It would be good for the general public to have information about lung cancer in the same way as breast and prostate which both seem to be caught early.
terri j parnell April 3, 2014
so true nobody does deserve to die of lung cancer, but people aren’t aware that there is a more deadly lung disease. It is called pulmonary fibrosis. It’s worse than lung cancer could ever be. Once diagnosed with PF it is literally a persons death sentence. This disease has killed twice as many in one year than breast cancer. There is no cure, no funding, and barely any help for the victims and there families. A person dies every 13 minutes with Pulmonary Fibrosis. My heart goes out to the ones with lung cancer but until you experience and have to watch a member of your family actually suffocate in front you while you sit there helpless you could never understand. This is why we have to keep spreading the word about this diease along with all the other silent killers. My thoughts and prayers are with all of them, but lets not kid ourselves there is something more deadly than cancer. And for the record a person that has never smoked a day in there life can actually die from PF.
Sam M April 2, 2014
It’s great to read how your dad pulled through and such relief for the precious moments saved. I can’t help but feel generally though that many of these articles don’t recognise the great sadness when family members haven’t been so fortunate, other than through stats and vitriol – when the pain is still raw, it would be good to hear an alternative perspective.
Victoria Simpson April 2, 2014
Thank you for this story. I lost my dad almost 7 years ago to lung cancer – I always feel the need to defend him as a smoker too. He didn’t deserve to die, nor suffer whilst battling through two rounds of chemo before finally losing his battle – ‘because he smoked’.
I donate monthly to Cancer Research UK – I want people to be aware of the symptoms to get treatment earlier – and a cure to be found for this horrible disease. If my dad was more aware of the symptoms he might’ve sought help sooner and still be here to walk me down the aisle.
stacy cass April 1, 2014
Thank you Laura for sharing your story. Most of all reminding me why I love working for salfordhcc.