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Lung cancer screening could save thousands of lives in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

Tim Gunn
by Tim Gunn | News

5 December 2023

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A CT scan of someone's lungs

Thousands of lives could be saved from lung cancer if screening programmes for the disease were introduced in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, according to new analyses from Cancer Research UK. 

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death across the four countries of the UK. So far, England is the country implementing the UK National Screening Committee’s recommendation to offer lung cancer screening to all those at the highest risk of the disease (people aged between 55 and 74 who either smoke or used to smoke). It’s plan is to reach 40% of this group by March 2025 and 100% by March 2030.

The targeted lung checks being introduced in England aim to help doctors diagnose lung cancers earlier, when they are more treatable. 

The latest calculations suggest equivalent lung cancer screening programmes could diagnose around 4,000 more lung cancer patients in Scotland at an early stage (stage 1 or 2) over the next decade, as well as 2,400 more people in Wales and 1,400 in Northern Ireland*.  

If just 50% of eligible people took part in screening, earlier lung cancer diagnosis could save 2,300 lives in Scotland, 1,000 lives in Wales and 600 lives in Northern Ireland over the next 10 years**. That’s why we’re calling for devolved governments to commit to urgently implement lung cancer screening programmes. 

Scotland’s pilot programme 

Scotland is currently piloting lung cancer screening through the LUNGSCOT project in the NHS Lothian health board area. New funding from the Scottish Government will see people at high risk of lung cancer in the Grampian, Greater Glasgow and Clyde, Highlands and Islands regions also invited for a lung check over the coming months. 

The aim of the study is to provide evidence to inform the implementation of a screening programme in Scotland. It’s looking at areas including recruitment, uptake, NHS capacity, access in rural and remote communities, and the impact on health inequalities. 

Professor David Weller, from the University of Edinburgh, is the principal investigator on the study. He said: “For too long, lung cancer has been perceived as a disease you can’t do anything about, but we know that diagnosis at an early stage really can make a difference. 

“Major trials of targeted lung cancer screening show significant reductions in mortality from lung cancer. Pilot studies in the UK and internationally consistently show people being diagnosed with lung cancer at an earlier stage.” 

In the first phase of England’s Targeted Lung Health Check programme, more than 2,000 people were detected as having lung cancer. 76% of those lung cancers were caught in their earlier stages, compared to 29% of the lung cancers detected outside of the programme. 

Weller added that a nationwide screening programme “has the potential to be a game changer when it comes to reducing the burden of lung cancer in Scotland”. 

Calls for action in Wales and Northern Ireland

Welsh Health Minister Eluned Morgan recently agreed to scoping work, which will assess how targeting lung screening could be developed in Wales. This is a positive step, though it is not a firm commitment to a national rollout. Currently, Wales is only running a small lung health check pilot in Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board. 

Alongside other health charities, Cancer Research UK has helped launch a public petition calling for lung cancer screening to be made available across Wales. If the petition reaches 10,000 signatures, the introduction of screening will be considered for a debate in the Senedd. You can add your signature here. 

There are also no confirmed plans in Northern Ireland, which has not had an Executive in place to agree to a programme since the last election in May 2022.  

Gerard Greene, a great-grandfather and retired bricklayer who was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in Northern Ireland in March 2021, stressed how important it is for the country to introduce targeted lung screening. 

He said: “To me, it is simple: screening will save lives.” 

After his diagnosis, Gerard received four rounds of chemotherapy and 10 sessions of radiotherapy. He is now being treated with immunotherapy. 

“I was told my tumour was inoperable. If it had been picked up earlier with screening then who knows what the doctors could have done.”

A 20-a-day smoker up until 15 years ago, Gerard is grateful that ongoing treatment has so far kept his tumour from growing. 

“I feel blessed that the treatment is keeping it under control and I have a good quality of life, but for others who aren’t so fortunate, screening might have made the difference.  

“If the government believes it will make a difference to people in England, then people here in Northern Ireland should have the same chance.” 

You can show your support Cancer Research UK’s #MakeLungScreeningHappen campaign in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland here.

Our call for targeted lung screening to be introduced across the UK as soon as possible is part of Longer, better lives: A manifesto for cancer research and care. It’s an important step towards our ambitious but realistic goal to prevent 20,000 cancer deaths every year by 2040. Click here to find out more about our manifesto. 

  •  * Analysis by CRUK when applying the evidence from the initial phase of the targeted lung screening programme in England for 55 to 74-year-olds to the numbers in that population in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and accounting for differences in smoking prevalence. Many assumptions have been made to get these estimates, but they are a best guess using the currently available evidence. 
  • ** Calculated by Cancer Research UK. Based on Gracie et al. 2019 and De Koning et al. 2020.