GPs are being urged to consider shortness of breath and a cough as potential predictors of lung cancer because they are becoming more common as the first symptom in diagnosis, a study suggests.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the UK and has a five-year survival rate of around 13%.
Researchers examined 27,795 records of adults who were diagnosed with lung cancer between 2000 and 2017 at more than 600 UK GP practices to try to establish which symptoms patients present first to their doctor.
The team found an increase in both cough and shortness of breath as the first symptom patients reported when they went on to be diagnosed with lung cancer.
Our paper shows a rapid change in the first symptom doctors are seeing
They found a decrease in patients who reported the first symptom to be coughing up blood, or loss of appetite, generally regarded as the headline symptom of lung cancer.
The study, which was funded by Cancer Research UK and supported by the National Institute for Health Research, was led by the University of Exeter Medical School.
Co-author Professor Willie Hamilton said: “Lung cancer is the biggest cancer killer in the UK.
“Our paper shows a rapid change in the first symptom doctors are seeing. That’s probably not caused by any change in basic biology, it’s more likely to be down to earlier detection.
And although smoking makes it much more likely, remember that non-smokers can have lung cancer too
“It means teaching must change — clinicians must be alert to the risks of cough and shortness of breath.”
Sara Hiom, director of early diagnosis at Cancer Research UK, said: “This important study indicates that people are now going to the doctor about different symptoms of lung cancer, such as cough and shortness of breath, possibly because of awareness campaigns in the past.
“Most people with these symptoms will not have lung cancer, but it’s well worth letting your GP decide if you need tests – because if it is cancer, a prompt diagnosis and speedy treatment make all the difference.
“And although smoking makes it much more likely, remember that non-smokers can have lung cancer too.”
– The study, Changes in the presenting symptoms of lung cancer from 2000 to 2017: a serial cross-sectional study of observational records in UK primary care, is published in the British Journal of General Practice.