Sean Duffy: GPs' vital role in lung cancer survival

It is estimated that about 1,300 deaths could be avoided each year if England lung cancer survival rates were as good as the best in Europe.

The Be Clear on Cancer lung cancer campaign returns on 2 July to help increase symptom awareness and early presentation in primary care.

Lung cancer has one of the lowest survival rates of any cancer because more than two-thirds of patients are diagnosed at a late stage. To help improve survival rates, we have to increase symptom awareness and educate people on the benefits of early diagnosis. Our aim here is to raise awareness that a cough lasting three weeks or more could be a sign of the disease.

There was concern from some GPs when the campaign launched last year - for example, why focus on a three-week cough? More than 90% of patients with lung cancer are symptomatic at diagnosis, with a cough being the most common presenting symptom. NICE guidelines state that a persistent three-week cough is a potential symptom of lung cancer, which requires urgent referral for a chest X-ray.

Results from the previous national campaign show an increase of about 30% in two-week wait referrals for suspected lung cancer during the campaign, while the regional pilots were encouraging.

Trusts in the campaign area saw a 14% increase in lung cancer cases diagnosed in the campaign period, compared with a year earlier. They saw a statistically significant increase in small cell cancers staged as 'limited' and a positive trend towards earlier diagnosis of non-small cell cancers - neither of these findings were seen in controls. There was also a significant increase in the proportion of patients having potentially curative surgery.

We're moving in the right direction, but until we see avoidable deaths dropping significantly, we can't take our foot off the accelerator, which is why the campaign is being repeated.

Primary care has a vital role as the gatekeeper to diagnosis. So please use the campaign as a talking point with high-risk patients, ensure colleagues are aware and use the wealth of support materials at www.naedi.org/beclearoncancer/lung

Sean Duffy is national clinical director for cancer at NHS England

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