November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month, which provides the opportunity to raise community awareness of lung cancer and the signs and symptoms of the disease.
Alison Hirth, Lung Mass Nurse, says the symptoms of lung cancer can often be vague and mimic those of other conditions, so it’s important for everyone to be aware of ongoing symptoms and to discuss with their GP, as earlier diagnosis improves outcomes.
“It’s a very common misconception that only smokers get lung cancer. We see patients with lung cancer who have never smoked. The most common lung cancer symptoms include a new or changed cough, coughing blood, persistent chest infections, weight loss, chest pain or a hoarse voice,” she said.
One of those patients is a 42-year old nurse and mother of two children, who wished to remain anonymous.
“I am a non-smoker, never smoked, and have never tasted alcohol. I was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer four months ago. I had always considered myself very fit and healthy. The gym was my second home but the diagnosis came anyway,” she explained.
Since her diagnosis, she has heard numerous misconceptions about lung cancer patients, especially around their lifestyle.
“l have been a victim myself with people telling me in my face that l have led a reckless lifestyle so the diagnosis was self-inflicted. I have never lived that way, but spent most of my time working as a nurse and giving back to the community. Why is it that other types of cancers are given more attention than lung cancer?” she said.
Patients who come to Northern Health Lung Mass Clinic present with different stages and symptoms. The clinic is dedicated to urgent assessment and management of patients with lung nodules/masses.
“A team of respiratory physicians, thoracic surgeons, medical oncologists and radiation oncologists are available in the same clinic, so patients can be seen by more than one specialist on the same day,” Alison explained.
Patients, Morag Henderson and John Marshall, were both referred to the clinic and worked closely with lung mass, oncology, and thoracic teams.
“In March this year, I was first admitted because I had fluid in the lungs, and after testing it was discovered I had lung cancer. My journey had it’s ups and downs, with the chemotherapy being difficult. Now that I am on immunotherapy, I feel better. It’s important to be positive about beating cancer, and I always had that approach, as well as a strong network of supportive friends,” Morag said.
John, a former smoker, noticed symptoms during a snorkelling day in Queensland.
“I was struggling to swim and kept coughing, and I am a strong swimmer usually, even though I am 76 years old. When we came back to Melbourne, I was still feeling unwell. Fortunately, I had an immediate X-ray and CT scan. Then we came here, met Alison, and I couldn’t be happier with the care I received. And I loved the multicultural atmosphere at Northern Health,” John said.
Luckily, due to this early discovery, John was able to have surgery, as his cancer was contained in a specific part of the lungs.
“Surgery is an option for patients who are referred to us early. Unfortunately, due to vague symptoms of lung cancer, people may not recognise the symptoms. But if we can raise awareness of the symptoms of lung cancer, earlier diagnosis results in much more effective treatment,” Alison explained.
Currently, due to late diagnosis, lung cancer is the leading cause of death in Australia with more deaths per year than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined.
Featured image (left to right): John Marshall and his wife Pamela and Morag Henderson