Friday 12 April 2019 at 10:40
Lung cancer can affect anyone - even people #LikeMe
Ten women. Ten faces. All different. Their ages range roughly from 30 through to 50. Their expressions give few clues. So, what is it they have in common?
From left to right: Jo, Mandee, Nicky, Saima, Gwen, Harriet, Liz, Amanda, Phoebe, Lucy
The answer is stark: they all have lung cancer.
Yet they’re all far from the usual stereotype of a lung cancer patient, most often seen as a frail, elderly, male ex-smoker.
The truth is, however, that lung cancer is a leading cause of cancer deaths for women under 50, many of them fit, lively and seemingly healthy. Many don’t smoke and never have. Only breast cancer claims more lives in this age group.
What is worse, younger people are more likely to be diagnosed at a later stage when curative treatment is no longer an option. Lung cancer is categorised in four stages; from the earliest, stage 1, through to stage 4, when the disease is at its most advanced.
Sadly, of people diagnosed with lung cancer at the later stages (3 and 4) when curative treatment is no longer possible, 72% are under 50 years old, while for those over 50, that figure falls to 67%. Clearly, among younger people - particularly women - their disease is rarely recognised early enough.
That’s the tragedy hidden behind the eyes of these ten brave women.
Each has volunteered to front a campaign launched by Britain’s only charity dedicated entirely to lung cancer, Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation.
The campaign, called #LikeMe, initially aims to reach two core groups - younger women themselves and family doctors, the ‘gate-keepers’ to diagnosis and treatment. The ‘frail elderly male’ stereotype can make it harder for doctors and patients to recognise even the possibility of lung cancer among women under 50.
Women may be simply unaware that even if they don’t smoke, they could be at risk, while GPs may find it hard to believe that an apparently healthy younger woman with relatively minor or vague symptoms may, in fact, have lung cancer. Such misconceptions are having tragic consequences.
#LIKEME highlights the basic fact that anyone can get lung cancer, regardless of age, gender or lifestyle.
One of the featured women, Amanda Sands, is herself a doctor – a GP in the British Army. Despite her own medical knowledge, she was shocked to discover she has the disease.
Amanda, on the set of Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation's #LikeMe photo shoot
She said, “You just don’t think you’re going to be a young, female, non-smoker and get lung cancer. I haven’t come across many patients of my age with lung cancer. It’s not something you think about”.
For Paula Chadwick, chief executive of Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation, Amanda’s story is sadly all too familiar.
She said, “These dangerous misconceptions cost lives. Too many lung cancers go undetected until it’s too late. Too many families are being deprived of mothers, partners, sisters, daughters.
“It’s time for change. Time for GPs to recognise that when a younger woman has a persistent cough, or breathlessness or unexplained blood clotting, lung cancer could be the cause. We urge doctors to see beyond the patient, recognise the symptoms, and follow them. If the signs are there, we say they must push for a proper diagnosis. Speedy action saves lives. That’s why #LIKEME is so vital”.
Lung cancer be cured with surgery or radiotherapy if caught early, and nowadays more people survive to enjoy a better quality of life for longer than ever before, thanks to ‘breakthrough’ treatments such as immunotherapies or targeted therapy drugs.
Younger people are more likely to be diagnosed at a later stage when curative treatment is no longer an option.
LikeMe aims to demonstrate that anyone can get lung cancer
Amanda, who’s 50, lives in London. She was diagnosed in October 2017 with a type of lung cancer identified by a specific molecular mutation, called ALK-positive. This often occurs in people who have never smoked. She’s now receiving targeted therapy which ‘recognises’ this gene mutation and helps block the cancer from growing and spreading.
She’s now well enough to be back at work full-time. A keen skier, she’s aiming to take part in a 55km Nordic skiing marathon later this year. Yet she lives with the knowledge that her lung cancer will, at some point, progress.
Scientists do not fully understand why some people develop this ALK-positive type of lung cancer, so more research is required – and #LikeMe also highlights this unmet need.
Amanda, like the other nine women who lead this campaign, remains hopeful. They all know the fear that their condition could suddenly worsen. Many are mothers, dreading the thought that their children might face a future without them.
For GPs and health professionals, it’s time to see past the stereotype and recognise that even seemingly mild symptoms really could indicate lung cancer.
For women under 50, it’s time to look at these faces and recognise – lung cancer really can affect people #LikeMe.