Lung cancer cell - image courtesy of the LRI EM unit
I was 22 when my father told me he had been diagnosed with lung cancer.
It was a moment in my life I will never forget, like a large boulder had been lodged in the pit of my stomach, and it stayed there.
A moment when you realise there is nothing you can say or think or do to change what is happening to someone you love.
Because I happened to be studying for a PhD in cancer research at the time, I knew more than most about his chances. And they weren’t good.
Fewer than one in ten people diagnosed with lung cancer are alive after five years.
Nobody wants to lose their Dad. My father had always been there for me – he was the person who showed me what it means to take responsibility for your life, to be determined and to work for what you want.
He was absolutely intrinsic to everything that ‘family’ means to me. A life without him seemed unthinkable, not only for myself, but also for my mother who was faced with losing her husband of 30 years.
These things happen to people every day, but you don’t really understand how it feels until it happens to you.
An uncomfortable truth
Now I work in research communications at Cancer Research UK. Every day I get to see the incredible research we’re funding first-hand.
I hear about the difference our progress is making to people with cancer right now and I witness the dedication and efforts of the public and our fundraising teams to raise the money we need to pay for this research.
I also get a real insight into some of the more controversial cancer topics.
Lung cancer is very much one of these.
Lung cancer is very common. It causes a fifth of all cancer deaths. But despite this, fundraisers and the media don’t often talk about it.
This is because of the negative perception surrounding the disease – the perception that people who smoke have ’caused’ their own cancer, or that they are in some way to blame for it. This makes lung cancer a difficult talking point.
Blame is not appropriate – anyone can get cancer
For my job, I need a comprehensive understanding of the causes of cancer.
Research shows us that the genes you inherit and the lifestyle you lead are important contributors.
Understanding the link between cancer and lifestyle is helpful because it means we can give people useful information about the things they can do to reduce their risk of getting cancer in the first place.
What it doesn’t mean is that people who get cancer are to blame for it.
People who have sex don’t ‘deserve’ cervical cancer; people who don’t exercise regularly don’t ‘deserve’ breast cancer and people who don’t eat a healthy balanced diet don’t ‘deserve’ bowel cancer. These things can play a role in cancer development, but cancer is complicated – it’s not a simple cause and effect.
You can make all the right lifestyle choices and, though this will stack the odds in your favour, you can still be unlucky enough to get cancer.
Certainly, not smoking is absolutely the best thing you can do to reduce your risk of getting cancer. But more than one in 10 lung cancers are not related to tobacco.
Anyone can get cancer. But regardless of how they got it, nobody deserves to die from cancer. People with the disease need effective treatments to get them better.
That is why we work tirelessly to find new ways to tackle the disease.
So it shouldn’t surprise us that people start smoking. It shouldn’t surprise us that young people sometimes make inadvisable choices. Unfortunately some of those choices can have very serious consequences.
Every year the equivalent of 6,500 classrooms of 11-15 year olds start smoking in the UK. Addiction keeps them smoking into adulthood, where it then kills half of long-term users.
My Dad smoked when he was young. He gave up when my Mum became pregnant with my older brother. Perhaps my Dad’s cancer was linked to smoking in his 20s – perhaps not.
Either way, I don’t believe he deserved lung cancer and I don’t believe he deserved to die.
Getting cancer diagnosed at an earlier stage is crucial
There is so much that can be done to improve the outlook for people with lung cancer.
If people are diagnosed at an early stage they are far more likely to survive. Around 70 per cent of people diagnosed with stage I lung cancer will survive for at least one year. This drops to less than 15 per cent if diagnosed at stage IV.
Currently people are diagnosed late far too often. We need people to know about the early signs and symptoms of lung cancer (such as a persistent cough, being short of breath or having an ache or pain when breathing or coughing).
My father was one of the very few lucky ones. He noticed some blood when he coughed and went straight to the doctor. Within weeks he was in surgery to have a large portion of his right lung removed.
It was an upsetting time for all of us and it took him some time to recover. But ten years on, he has the ‘all clear’. That’s ten years extra we’ve had as a family.
Two years ago his first granddaughter arrived – and he takes great pleasure in spoiling her rotten.
He has two more grandchildren on the way. The idea that he might have missed out on knowing them would be a tragic loss for everyone involved. But this is happening to thousands of families across the UK every year.
We’ve got a lot to do…
Early diagnosis is a big part of the battle, but we also need better treatments for people who already have the disease. And of course, we need to reduce the number of people smoking and continue our tobacco control efforts to help prevent people getting the disease in the first place.
Increasing the focus on lung cancer is a key priority for us – and while there are many challenges to deal with, it’s also an area with so much potential for improvement.
Pioneering projects such as our new TRACERx study hold incredible promise for changing our understanding of lung cancer and leading to new ways to diagnose and treat the disease, so that more people survive and more families, like mine, can appreciate having them around.
But one of the most important things we need to do is change how we think about lung cancer. We need to shift the negative perceptions around the disease and get people talking about it.
We all need to buy in to the idea that nobody deserves to die from cancer.
Laura Bell is a senior science communications manager at Cancer Research UK