Thursday 26 April 2018

'I had a cough for a few weeks and it turned out to be lung cancer' - Dad-of-four (57) on shock diagnosis

Lung cancer kills more people than any other cancer. Late detection reduces survival rates, so we need to start listening to our lungs in order to spot the early signs

Cancer survivor Tony Walsh pictured at his home in Rossnowlagh, Co. Donegal. Photo Philip Mulligan
Cancer survivor Tony Walsh pictured at his home in Rossnowlagh, Co. Donegal. Photo Philip Mulligan
Dr Ann Marie Baird of Lung Cancer Europe

Kathy Donaghy

When Tony Walsh had a persistent cough for a few weeks, he put it down to a flu. It turned out he had lung cancer and he's now backing calls for people to get a cough that won't go away checked out.

Tony (57), a father of four from Rossnowlagh in Co Donegal, believes he's one of the lucky ones. Like many men, he says he put off going to the doctor and it was only eventually after there was no sign of his cough going away that he finally gave in. Within a month of his doctor's visit in December 2014, the diagnosis was made: lung cancer on the bottom of the right lung.

"I felt like I had the flu. It wasn't going away and I had a cough. I don't go to the doctor too often. He said to me: 'there must be something badly wrong when you're here.' I was sent for an X-Ray, a CT scan and a biopsy. When the results came in, I was shocked. I never thought I'd get cancer," says Tony.

Both the Irish Cancer Society and the Marie Keating Foundation are campaigning to increase awareness of the symptoms of lung cancer as early diagnosis is key in the fight against the disease.

Dr Ann Marie Baird of Lung Cancer Europe
Dr Ann Marie Baird of Lung Cancer Europe

This month marks the Irish Cancer Society's Lung Cancer Awareness Campaign. The organisation hopes to raise awareness of the symptoms so the cancer can be spotted and diagnosed sooner. According to the society, research, published by the Global Lung Cancer Coalition, showed that one in three Irish people were unable to name any of the symptoms of lung cancer.

The society says that one in four lung cancer patients are being diagnosed in hospital A&E departments with many of these at an advanced stage. And it's urging people to get checked if they experience any symptoms because late diagnosis limits treatment options and reduces survival rates.

The 'Listen to your Lungs' campaign being run by the Marie Keating Foundation is also aiming to raise awareness of lung cancer - the most deadly of all cancers in this country - and is urging people with a persistent cough for more than three weeks to go to their GP.

Around 2,300 Irish people are diagnosed with lung cancer every year. While it's the fourth most common cancer after prostate, breast and colorectal, more people die of lung cancer here than from any other kind.

And figures from the National Cancer Registry Ireland show that female lung cancer cases are projected to increase by at least 77pc between 2010 and 2040 and male cases by at least 52pc.

Dr Ann Marie Baird of Lung Cancer Europe - an advocacy group working for improvements in lung cancer prevention, early detection, treatment and care - says while the statistics are stark, early detection could be a game-changer.

Dr Baird, who is also a cancer researcher at St James's Hospital in Dublin, says if more people listened to their bodies and went to see a doctor with a persistent cough, more lives would be saved.

Lung cancer is something that has affected her in her personal life too: her aunt and grandmother both passed away from the disease and Dr Baird is keen to raise awareness of the life-saving benefits of early detection.

"In Ireland, the majority of patients present at a late stage, so survival rates tend to be very poor. Overall, the five-year survival rate is 15-18pc, whereas with breast cancer and prostate cancer the five-year survival rate is in the 80s," says Dr Baird.

She says a big issue with lung cancer is the stigma surrounding it that patients and their families feel. "There's so many patients who suffer from the blame-game. People say, 'you were a smoker, what do you expect?' We want to get away from the stigma - nobody deserves to get lung cancer. It doesn't matter if you were a smoker or a non-smoker. Anyone who gets a diagnosis of another type of cancer gets sympathy and empathy. Lung cancer patients feel stigmatised and blamed and this stops people seeking treatment," she says.

"There are multiple reasons why people won't seek treatment. It's not as simple as stigma but stigma does play a huge role. If you present with late-stage cancer, it will affect the outcome".

Another issue, she says, is lack of awareness of the symptoms. "Smokers will say they have a 'smoker's cough'. Studies show patients can't identify the symptoms of lung cancer. Coughing is one of the most common symptoms. If you have a persistent cough for three weeks, you should get checked out. If you have a long-term cough that has changed in some way or fatigue or weight loss, get checked out," says Dr Baird.

For Tony Walsh and his family, life has changed completely since his diagnosis. His right lung was removed and his life as a busy construction contractor is over.

But after feeling initially very down at the change in his life, he's gradually building up his strength and increasing the capacity of his left lung with regular walks on the beach near his home in Rossnowlagh with Pebbles his golden Labrador.

"It's funny how the body works. My left lung is beginning to expand. I would love to get back to the things I did like playing football but I know I won't be fit to do that again and I wouldn't be able to take on the stress or pressure of working for myself again," says Tony.

"I had to start to take long walks to build up my left lung. I had never been a walker - I drove everywhere. I was fit although I was a smoker. This changes your whole life. If my cough had gone away with medication it might have been too late for me. I'm very grateful. If I hadn't gone to the doctor I'd be dead at this stage," he says.

"At the minute I'm not on any medication - I'm lucky. When I go for my check-ups the doctors and nurses are taken aback because everything went very well for me," says Tony.

"The walk is a big part of my routine now. I go and see my grandchildren and run errands. I'm taking one day at a time.

For more information, go to irishcancersociety.ie mariekeating.ie/lungcancer

Lung cancer: know the symptoms

* Cancer Prevention Manager with the Irish Cancer Society Kevin O'Hagan says people need to know the symptoms of lung cancer because early diagnosis is key to improving your chances of survival.

"Very often people ignore the symptoms and we know that one in four lung cancers are diagnosed in hospital A&E departments - that's around 600 cases a year and they are diagnosed at a late stage. At this stage treatment options are limited and prognosis isn't great," says Mr O'Hagan.

"Our big call out to people in January, our Lung Cancer Awareness Month, is around early diagnosis and to make people aware of the symptoms:

* If you have difficulty breathing or you're wheezing or you have a cough that won't go away or a change in a long-term cough, you should get checked out," he says.

* If you are a smoker you may underestimate a long-term cough.

* If you have a chest infection that doesn't clear up even after an antibiotic or you're feeling more tired than usual, you should get checked out

* Having a hoarse voice, coughing up blood with phlegm, having chest pain, any swelling around the face or neck and difficulty swallowing are all symptoms that should not be ignored.

"A lot of these symptoms can be caused by a number of things but you should not delay in getting them checked out," says Mr O'Hagan.

As part of its awareness campaign, the society has produced an online lung health checker which takes people through a series of questions which they can answer and bring the results to their GP.

The society says it's a very simple but effective way of taking lung health seriously and allows people to have a proper conversation with their doctor.

The lung health checker is available at cancer.ie/lung/checker.

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