Let me first be clear – I whole-heartedly support the NHS lung cancer campaign to know the signs and go to your doctor if you have a persistent cough. But ours won’t be the first you’ve read, or the last, to say that our GP dismissed our concerns. In Mom’s case, the GP diagnosed gastro-oesohpageal reflux and prescribed omeprazole.
I first remember hearing Mom’s cough early in October 2010. I suggested she see her GP and ask for a chest x-ray. When she saw her GP at the end of October, both she and the GP agreed it was ‘just reflux’ and if it should persist she would have an x-ray in January after her holiday to Australia. Mom had by this time had the cough for a couple of months, but had not said anything to us. She had been a heavy smoker, quitting in her fifties due to ill health. These two facts alone should have been enough to persuade the GP to refer her for x-ray. She did not.
In November, Mom was concerned that she was retaining fluid and feeling a bit puffy. This we now know is a sign of lung cancer too, when it occurs with a syndrome like SIADH (a technical term which means that the body is unable to control the amount of sodium in the blood). The GP prescribed the diuretic furosemide. A blood test at this stage (recommended when starting this drug) would have shown that Mom’s sodium levels were dropping.
It wasn’t until three days before she left for Australia that Mom’s struggle became clear. She had three nasty falls. The GP checked her out for stroke, and gave her the all clear to travel. A locum GP thought to request a blood test, which showed the decreased sodium, and the diuretics were stopped, but nobody wanted to take the decision to stop Mom from travelling.
I only found out about this after Mom became seriously ill. She and Dad decided not to tell me, so that I didn’t worry. I wish they had told me. I know that in Mom’s case, the outcome would probably have been the same, but if Mom’s diagnosis had been made in November 2010, she would never have undertaken the long trip to Australia.
Mom collapsed two days into her holiday in December 2010. The horror of it was unspeakable. My Dad didn’t understand what was happening. The doctors in Australia did an amazing job to save her life and stabilise her for travel back to the UK. They made the diagnosis of small cell lung cancer and sent Mom home for treatment. Her disease was already extensive, that is, it had spread. We were told that Mom’s chemotherapy would only be palliative, to extend her life for a few precious months. Mom died in August 2011.
Please don’t ignore the signs. Please insist on a referral for investigation. Not all lung cancers are the same. The ads on TV don’t tell you this. They don’t tell you that GPs don’t think of lung cancer first. It’s up to you.