Top cancer doctor warns a negative COVID-19 test and ongoing cough can be a sign of lung cancer

The NHS is urging the public to come forward if they are experiencing lung cancer symptoms after an almost 30% drop in referrals compared to this time last year. As a persistent cough is also a symptom of Covid, it is more important than ever to be aware of the warning signs of lung cancer.

Lung cancer is the third most common cancer in England with around 5752 people in South East England being diagnosed each year. Finding lung cancer early, like other cancers, makes it more treatable.

However, research commissioned by the NHS found half of people in South East England do not know that a persistent cough for more than three weeks can be a lung cancer symptom. And three fifths of people in South East England would not make an appointment with their GP if they had a cough lasting three weeks or more and had tested negative for coronavirus.

The findings have been released as NHS England and Public Health England launch a major new drive encouraging people to get check by a GP if they have lung cancer symptoms. In a poignant short film cricketer Sir Andrew Strauss, whose wife Ruth died aged 46, stressed that anyone coughing for three weeks or more should get checked.

Michael Baker, Deputy Director of Healthcare at Public Health England South East, said: “It’s too easy to ignore important signs that your body is trying to tell you but it’s so important with cancer that it is treated as early as possible. If you are in any doubt at all, please consult your GP. Don’t wait until it’s too late.”

Those whose cancer is caught at the earliest point, referred to as stage one, have a 57.7% chance of living for another five years, compared to 3.1% for those diagnosed at stage four.

The NHS Long Term Plan aims to increase the number of cancer patients diagnosed early, at stage one or two, from half to three quarters.

The health service has seen more people come forward for cancer checks since the first peak of the pandemic but lung cancer referrals are at 73% of the same point last year.

The research found the main reasons people gave for not contacting their GP practice were being worried about burdening the NHS and wanting to wait and see if the cough would go away by itself.

More than three quarters said they would encourage their loved ones to make an appointment with their GP if they kept coughing but knew they did not have Covid-19. The Help Us Help You campaign includes a series of TV adverts encouraging anyone with an ongoing cough to not delay contacting their GP.

Professor Peter Johnson, National Clinical Director for Cancer for NHS England and Consultant at University Hospital Southampton, said: “If you have had a negative Covid test but are still coughing after three weeks, do not delay – you must come forward to get a lung cancer check. Otherwise we are going to see people with cancer that’s become more advanced and much harder to treat.

“It is understandable that people haven’t wanted to trouble the health service during the pandemic or have been worried about attending appointments because of the Covid risk. However, the risk of a cancer that you don’t pay attention to is much greater than the risk of coronavirus. GP practices have introduced a series of measures to make them Covid-safe. The NHS is open and ready to see anyone with a concerning symptom – it could save your life.”

Dr Anant Sachdev, GP, said: “Speaking as a GP, I cannot stress enough how important it is to contact your GP practice if you’ve had a cough for three weeks or more and it isn’t COVID-19, especially if you are over 60. This research shows the pivotal role friends and family can play in encouraging loved ones to contact their GP practice if they have a persistent cough, so please encourage them to act if you are in this situation. Whilst it’s probably nothing serious, it could be a sign of lung cancer and finding cancer earlier makes it more treatable.”

Patient Neil Rankin developed cancer in both lungs. He had part of one lung removed and then a more aggressive cancer which was inoperable developed in the other. He said: “I was told in November 2018 that I wouldn’t make Christmas if we didn’t do something quickly. I have been fortunate. I would say to anyone with symptoms, please go and see your doctor. Don’t delay. The quicker you are seen, the quicker you can get the treatment you need.”

From the start of the pandemic to December, 228,000 people started NHS treatment for cancer, 95% of whom did so within a month. Hospitals across England have also carried out more than two cancer procedures for every patient they treated for coronavirus in 2020. Despite this, latest figures show GP referrals for lung cancer remain lower than the same point last year.

NHS England has also introduced a series of innovations in cancer care during the pandemic, including COVID-19-secure surgery hubs that were set up across the country and £160 million invested in ‘COVID-19-friendly’ cancer drugs, that treat patients without having such a big impact on their immune system or offer other benefits such as fewer hospital visits.