People are shocked when I tell them I have lung cancer. I understand why. I was shocked when I was diagnosed - you just don’t think that you’re going to be a young, female non-smoker and get lung cancer. But here I am, and I am not alone.
I am one of 10 women to take part in Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation’s LikeMe campaign. All of us were diagnosed under the age of 50, most of us have incurable lung cancer. The LikeMe campaign looks to challenge the misconceptions around the disease and, by initially focusing on younger women like myself, provides a stark realisation that no one is immune from it.
As a GP myself, I know that the odds of a young, non-smoking woman complaining of a persistent cough having lung cancer are small. However, I am also proof that it can happening, and is happening more and more.
I have a type of lung cancer called anaplastic lymphoma kinase positive, or ALK+. GP’s haven’t really heard of ALK+ positive lung cancer. I am a GP in the army and none of my colleagues have heard of it. No one know what has caused it except it's due to some kind of genetic mutation, and that it is on the rise within young females who don't smoke. In fact, ALK+ lung cancer currently accounts for 3-5% of all lung cancer cases. That’s around 2,300 people.
My story started back in the summer of 2017 when I was 48. I had a bit of a cough and also felt tight chested but I just put it down to increased pollen levels. Six weeks later though and my cough had worsened and I was very short of breath when walking uphill. This was really unusual for me, as I consider myself to be quite fit.
I went to my GP and asked for a chest x-ray. When that came back as abnormal, I asked for a CT scan. My doctors said lung cancer was an outside chance and, given my age and the fact that I had never smoked, lymphoma or TB was more likely.
I had a lymph node biopsy from my neck because the cancer had spread to my neck and when that came back showing lung cancer, I knew, like the majority of those diagnosed, it was a stage 4 and incurable.
Late diagnosis is the reason why only 10% of us diagnosed with lung cancer will live for five years or more. But detecting lung cancer early is not easy. At best, the symptoms of the disease are non-specific – a persistent cough, breathlessness and fatigue. At worst, people can be completely asymptomatic. And for those of us who don’t fall into the ‘high risk’ category, the odds of an early diagnosis are even less; those under 50 are more likely to be diagnosed at late stage than those over 50.
Lung cancer can affect anyone
This is why I wanted to take part in Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation’s LikeMe campaign. Yes, lung cancer is still more prevalent in the older generation but it’s vital everyone recognises that lung cancer can happen to anyone, at any age, regardless of if they have smoked or not.
As GPs we deal with coughs and upper respiratory tract infections a lot of the time. They're bread and butter consultations – but it is important to take time to listen to the story.
If someone has got a cough for more than three weeks you need to be thinking 'what could be causing this?' and think about doing some kind of investigation, such as a chest x-ray. Likewise, if someone has got a wheeze and it doesn't really fit in with their previous history, you should be thinking about doing some further investigations. You need to take people's symptoms seriously and recognise that there could be something else going on.
- Dr Sands is a GP in the Army
Watch Dr Sands in the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation's Like Me campaign video below: