Lung cancer


Understanding risks and recognising symptoms

You may be surprised to learn that lung cancer is the most common cause of cancer death in the UK. You are not alone if, despite this fact, you don’t know a great deal about lung cancer. With close to 50,000 people diagnosed with lung cancer in the UK between 2016 and 2018, it is pertinent that we understand more to quite simply help save lives.

And you will most likely have questions, like what causes lung cancer, who is more at risk, and what are the symptoms to look out for? Is the link between smoking and lung cancer really fact or is it just a myth?

We look at answering all of the above, and particularly look into the connection between smoking and lung cancer and breakdown whether it really is a myth after all. As lung cancer awareness month is drawing to a close, we felt it is the right time to Help You in light of the Help Us, Help You campaign that NHS has relaunched.

What causes lung cancer?

Anyone can develop lung cancer but some of us are at more risk than others. It may not come as a surprise that smoking is the biggest risk factor and this is backed up by scientific evidence. A staggering 50% of lung cancer patients are current smokers at the time of diagnosis. However, other risks include occupational exposure to substances such as arsenic, asbestos, and even diesel fumes. 

Smoking causes an increased risk of lung cancer – myth or fact?


You’ve probably heard there is a link between smoking and an increased risk of cancer, and more specifically lung cancer. But if you smoke does your risk of developing lung cancer really increase? Is it really a much bigger risk? What evidence is there to support this alleged risk? These may be just some of the questions that you are thinking especially if you are smoker yourself. It is often a risk that is spoken about, communicated in the media, and commonly advertised on the back of cigarette packets with the infamous and somewhat sobering photo of an x-ray of a cancer patient. Well, this risk that has been advertised for many years is not a myth and is far from it. We have collated some hard-hitting facts to provide the evidence for you that smoking will and not may put you at a massive increased risk of developing cancer, and will continue to do so for as long as you smoke.

The risks of smoking

Let's breakdown the risks of smoking:

  • Around 85% of cases occur in people who smoke or who used to smoke
  • Your risk of getting lung cancer increases with the number of cigarettes you’ve smoked and the number of years you’ve been a smoker
  • Breathing in other people’s smoke (passive smoking) over a long period can also increase your risk of getting lung cancer

You’ve read it right, around 85% of lung cancer cases occur in people who smoke or used to smoke. So, when only around 15% of cases occur in people who have not smoked, what are the key takeaways from this? Well, the facts speak for themselves, don’t they? The absence of smoking, previous or present, means you are at an incredibly far lower risk of developing lung cancer. Obviously, risk will still be there, as with any form of cancer, but the numbers are overwhelmingly small compared to the presence of smoking. With such hard-hitting numbers, it may start to make you think and reflect on your own lifestyle. Are you a smoker? Are you often exposed to other people’s smoke? It could be a good time to take stock here.

Quitting smoking will undoubtedly lower your risk of developing lung cancer, but of course, it doesn’t stop there when it comes to health benefits. Your risk of heart disease, stroke, vascular disease, and respiratory disease will also decrease significantly. Importantly, the quality of your lung function will also improve which will also in turn improve your quality of life. The improvement of heart, lung, and vascular health will all help to keep your life expectancy up. That is just to name a few areas of your health that will improve from not smoking. Quitting smoking can also improve your mood and help relieve stress, anxiety, and depression.

Quitting smoking will ultimately mean you reduce the risk of developing lung cancer. Once you have hit the 10-year mark of not smoking your risk of developing lung cancer will fall by half of that of a smoker. That's right, the risk will eventually fall by half. This is powerful statistic and a great motivator if you are thinking about or in the process of quitting smoking. 

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Finding support to quit smoking


Stoptober may have come to an end but that doesn’t mean now is not the ‘right’ or the ‘appropriate’ time to quit smoking. It is about when the time is right for you. There is a wealth of resources available through the NHS Smokefree service that are designed to help you on your journey, including:

  • Expert advisers available to guide you through those first weeks of quitting
  • Group sessions in your local area that you can join for peer support
  • Aids to help you with withdrawal symptoms such as gum, patches, and mouth sprays

When do you need to seek medical help?


We’ve spoken a lot about prevention, but it is also extremely important to raise awareness of common symptoms of lung cancer. It is important to note first that more than 4 out of 10 people diagnosed with lung cancer in the UK being aged 75 and older. Age plays a big part in the rate of risk.

You may have heard of the ‘3-week cough’ in campaigns for lung cancer awareness, but what does that actually mean and what are the other symptoms to look out for? 

  • A cough
  • A hoarse voice  
  • Feeling out of breath either at rest or when completing day-to-day tasks
  • Feeling tired
  • Frequent chest infections  
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Chest pain
  • Blood in your phlegm or mucus

It is important if you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, to contact your GP. Your GP will be able to undertake necessary tests and examinations, and a referral may be made for further tests where needed. Acting as quickly as possible is key to ruling out lung cancer or to get treatment that you need for another condition. If it is lung cancer, your survival chances will be far higher when it is diagnosed in its early stages.

What is the ‘3-week cough’?

And what is meant by the ‘3-week cough’? If you have been experiencing a persistent cough for three weeks then it is important to contact your GP so it can be looked into and rule out lung cancer. Seeing your GP could mean life-saving checks take place. But this can also be applied if you are experiencing other symptoms that have been persistent for weeks. It is always best if you are in any doubt about any changes in your health to contact your GP.

What treatments are available?

Treatment centres around three key areas and is also combined with wellbeing support alongside these medical treatments:

  • Surgery
  • Drug therapies
  • Radiotherapy

Treatment has come a long way in recent years for lung cancer and new ground-breaking drugs and treatments are being developed all the time. For example, Atezolizumab has recently been developed which is the first immunotherapy approved for patients with early-stage NSCLC (epithelial lung cancer).

The important role of exercise


Being physically active may help reduce symptoms like tiredness, anxiety, and depression. This could range from taking a walk around your local area to strength-based exercises such as yoga. It's recommended that most adults do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week. The NHS breakdown what this 150 minutes of exercise could consist of, and includes the type of exercises that are classed as strength training or vigorous activity. For more in-depth help and guidance around strength training, have a read of our blog post: Growing stronger at any age.

Let’s talk about lung cancer

Raising awareness of lung cancer is so important to enable others to know where you can go for help or support, particularly if you have been affected by lung cancer. Talking to a GP, cancer specialist, family and friends can all play a big part in a strong support network. You can find extensive information and resources via charities such as:


Roy Castle Lung Foundation has launched a podcast dedicated to talking about lung cancer. During lung cancer awareness month, there will be chats with patients, supporters, and healthcare professionals who will be talking about their experiences with lung cancer. 

Starting open and honest conversations like these can quite frankly help to save lives. The more that is understood about prevention, cause, symptoms, treatment, and where to find support, the higher the chance of people speaking up and getting diagnosed early. Let’s end this blog post, with a powerful statistic around early diagnosis.

Almost 9 in 10 (88%) people with lung cancer will survive their disease for one year or more when it is diagnosed at its earliest stage. In comparison, around 1 in 5 (19%) people when the disease is diagnosed at the latest stage.

And remember, if in any doubt, give your GP a shout.

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