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1.7 million people could be living with an undiagnosed lung cancer in the UK

20 July 2016

Figures released as part of Public Health England’s nationwide Be Clear On Cancer campaign reveal that as many as 1.7 million people in the UK could be living with an undiagnosed lung cancer or lung disease.

If you get out of breath doing things that you used to be able to do, tell your doctor

Everybody will experience breathlessness now and again, for example after physical exertion or heavy exercise that you are not used to. This is healthy and normal. However, sometimes being short of breath could be a sign of something more serious.

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If you are feeling out of breath when doing your usual day-to-day activities, then it could be a symptom of a respiratory illness or disease.

Diagnosing these conditions early could make them more treatable.

Breathlessness and lung cancer

Breathlessness is a major symptom of lung cancer and other lung diseases. A persistent cough and chest infections are also symptoms of lung cancer. There are around 35,000 new cases of lung cancer diagnosed in the UK each year. It kills more men and women than any other form of cancer.

Lung cancer can affect people of all ages, but it is most common in those who are over 50. Although it is more common in smokers, around one in eight people with lung cancer have never smoked.

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The risk of lung cancer gets worse as you get older, but finding it early improves the chances of potential treatment.

How to spot symptoms of breathlessness

Breathlessness may involve:

  • Difficult breathing
  • Uncomfortable breathing
  • Feeling like you are not getting enough air
  • More rapid breathing

You need to see your doctor straight away if you have been experiencing breathlessness while doing everyday activities such as light housework, walking short distances on relatively flat ground (e.g. to your local shop or walking the dog), gardening or climbing short flights of stairs.

What will your doctor ask you about your breathlessness?

Your doctor will ask you a few questions and may suggest some tests, such as chest X-rays, blood tests or lung function tests. These are standard procedures and are nothing to worry about.

Your doctor might ask you some of these questions:

  • How long have you been experiencing breathlessness and how quickly did it come on?
  • What triggers the breathlessness and what relieves it – if anything does?
  • Could you describe how the breathlessness affects you over the course of the day?
  • Does it start or get worse when you lie flat?
  • Is there any stress or worries you might have at the moment?
  • Do you smoke or have you smoked?
  • What do you do or what did you used to do for a job?
  • Is your breathlessness related to certain times throughout the day or at work?
  • Does anything bring it on? E.g. pollen, pets or medication?
  • Do you have a history of heart, lung or thyroid disease or anaemia?
  • Do you take any form of medication?

It is important that you answer these questions as accurately as possible, as they could help with finding out what lung disease you have, if you have one, and what could trigger your breathlessness.

Asbestos-related diseases and breathlessness

Asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma, asbestos-related lung cancer, asbestosis and pleural thickening are not easy to diagnose. The symptoms – such as breathlessness, a persistent cough, chest pains, tiredness and weight loss – are all associated with a great many other lung diseases and other illnesses.

One way of telling whether breathlessness could be due to an asbestos-related lung disease is to look at yours or a family member’s work history. People may have been exposed to asbestos in their workplace, their communities, or even their homes. If products containing asbestos are disturbed, tiny asbestos fibres are released into the air. When asbestos fibres are breathed in, they may get trapped in the lungs and remain there for a long time. Over time, these fibres can accumulate and cause scarring and inflammation, which can affect breathing and lead to serious health problems.

Asbestos Fibres

Everyone is exposed to asbestos at some time during their life. Low levels of asbestos are present in the air, water, and soil. However, most people do not become ill from their exposure. People who become ill from asbestos are usually those who are exposed to it on a regular basis, most often in a job where they worked directly with the material or through substantial environmental contact.

Trades which were most at risk from coming into contact with asbestos include:

  • Labourers
  • Pipefitters
  • Plasterers
  • Carpenters
  • Demolition and wrecking crews
  • Insulation workers
  • Roofers
  • Tile setters
  • Ship builders

Workers from various trades can share a single jobsite and so it could only take one negligent worker to place many people at risk. Asbestos dust can spread around jobsites easily and expose people who never even handled asbestos directly. Even worse, workers could bring the dust home on their clothes, hair or tools, which could place their families at risk of secondary exposure, which can be just as deadly.

A smoker who has been exposed to asbestos dust and fibres also has an increased chance of developing a lung disease. On its own, asbestos exposure can lead to the development of multiple cancers and diseases. However, research has determined that smoking and asbestos work together and cause a multiplicative effect in increasing the risks of developing lung cancer.

For example, if the risk of an asbestos worker getting lung cancer later in life is 5%, and of a smoker 10%, the risk of an asbestos worker who smokes getting lung cancer would be 50%.

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People who have been exposed, or suspect that they have been exposed, to asbestos dust and fibres in their workplace, through the environment, or at home through contact with a family member who had worked with asbestos, should inform their doctor about their exposure and work history. The symptoms of asbestos-related diseases may not become apparent for many decades after their exposure. It usually takes between 10 and 50 years for an individual to develop any symptoms of an asbestos related disease. It is particularly important to check with a doctor if any of the following symptoms develop:

  • Shortness of breath, wheezing or hoarseness
  • A persistent cough that gets worse over time
  • Blood in the sputum (fluid) coughed up from the lungs
  • Pain or tightening in your chest
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Swelling in the neck or face
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue or anaemia

Further reading:

“Wasting GP’s time” is stopping people from reporting suspected cancer symptoms

What is asbestos?

The role of asbestos in the UK’s high lung cancer rate is being missed and sufferers are losing out

Six questions that may establish whether an unexplained lung condition could be asbestos related


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