When they tell you it’s lung cancer you think ‘how long have I got?’

Mary Williams
Mary Williams
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One final deep puff and Mary Williams stubbed out her last cigarette. Stopping smoking wasn’t going to be easy – she knew that – but it certainly would be better for her health.

And while she couldn’t persuade husband Tony to do the same, mum-of-five Mary, 58, believed stubbing out the fags was bound to be worth the effort.

More than seven years on and Mary’s still proud to be a non-smoker. Sadly, though, the damage of years hooked on nicotine may already have been done long before she quit.

“I started to get breathless in January,” she explains, casting her mind back to the first sign that something was wrong. “I went to the doctor, thinking I had a chest infection.

“I thought some antibiotics would clear it up and I’d be fine. So I couldn’t believe it when it turned out to be lung cancer.”

Since then Mary has been through radiotherapy and an aborted episode of chemotherapy – cut short because she developed a potentially lethal blood clot around the Hickman line inserted in her neck to feed her cancer medication.

And while the inoperable tumour which straddles a section of her right lung and part of her brochus – the vital tube which delivers air into her lungs – has shrunk thanks to what treatment she did receive, she faces regular nailbiting checks to see whether or not it has started to grow again.

“I’ve been told that at the moment it’s non-terminal,” she explains. “They can’t remove it because of where it is but the doctor says there’s no reason why I can’t go on for however long, as long as it stays just as it is. I hope that it does.”

For many, however, lung cancer can be a terrible death sentence. It kills more men and women in the UK than any other cancer, accounting for nearly a quarter of male and a fifth of female cancer-related deaths.

And while mortality rates for many other cancers are falling, lung cancer among women in particular is increasing: NHS Scotland figures released in October showed an 18 per cent rise in female deaths in the past ten years, at the same time as there has been a ten per cent decrease among men.

Yet according to a poll by Macmillan Cancer Support to mark Lung Cancer Awareness Month, most women are more concerned about the risk of breast cancer. And only six per cent said they would be confident of knowing the signs and symptoms of lung cancer.

That, says Kim Hardwick, Senior Cancer Information Nurse at Macmillan Cancer Support, is particularly concerning. “The number of women diagnosed with lung cancer is increasing every year, whereas for men the numbers are in decline.

“Lung cancer is often diagnosed at a late stage when curative treatment is no longer possible. “It’s so important that women – particularly those who smoke – are aware of the symptoms of lung cancer and see their doctor promptly. Diagnosis at an earlier stage could save your life.”

Mary, a grandmother of nine, knew smoking has long been recognised as one of the main causes of lung cancer. A smoker since her youth, she listened to the health warnings and took the decision to quit seven-and-a-half years ago.

“I’m an ex-smoker now,” she says proudly, “but when I was smoking I was always fine, always on the go.

“Things started to go wrong in January. I used to walk everywhere but I started to get out of breath. I had to keep stopping and holding on to something until I could get my breath back.”

She didn’t know that breathlessness can be a key symptom of lung cancer.

“I thought it was something like a chest infection,” adds Mary, who lives with husband Tony, 67, in Wardieburn Place West. “It got worse and worse. I had a bit of a cough too, so I went to see my GP.”

Her doctor sent her straight to the Western General for a chest X-ray. Within days Mary had received a phone call telling her the results had revealed a shadow on her lung.

“The doctor said it could be a few things, it might be TB or maybe cancer but she was hoping it was TB,” remembers Mary.

Further tests, however, confirmed her worst fears – a tumour so awkwardly positioned that no attempt could be made to remove it through surgery.

“When they say ‘lung cancer’, you immediately think ‘how long have I got?’,” adds Mary. “What was worse was that Tony’s sister Maureen died in 2006 from lung cancer, which was very distressing for the family. So we knew how serious it was.”

She underwent gruelling radiotherapy at the Royal Infirmary in May followed by a course of chemotherapy. But problems developed early in the treatment when a blood clot formed around the Hickman line inserted to feed the drugs into her body. Even now, months later, Mary still has to take anti-coagulant drugs to help prevent further clots.

The cancer treatment was debilitating and left Mary exhausted and sick. “I was so tired,” she recalls. “And it was stressful. I was used to looking after a big family and suddenly I could hardly do anything for myself.”

Macmillan Cancer Support staff helped with everything from details of her treatment to advising on how to fill in tricky forms. And Mary has also visited cancer support centre Maggie’s at the Western General, where patients and families are given access to various therapies and vital support.

Eventually a scan in October revealed her tumour had shrunk significantly, raising hopes that it might not develop further.

But for many with lung cancer, the prospects are not good. Last year 15,270 Scots lost their lives to cancer – 4055 of these cases were lung cancer.

It’s also the UK’s biggest cancer killer – 33,500 people die from it in the UK every year, which is more than leukaemia, breast and prostate cancer combined. Yet, argue charities, lung cancer research receives just three per cent of all money spent on cancer research in this country.

Not only that, but a recent report by the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation, launched to mark Lung Cancer Awareness Month, revealed survival rates vary widely across Scotland: in Lothian and the Borders, one in three people is alive one year after their lung cancer diagnosis compared to one in four in Fife.

It also pointed out that nearly two thirds of lung cancer patients are unlikely to survive beyond one year from diagnosis. An average of just one in 14 will survive five years after their diagnosis. “Each year, more than 4000 people die from lung cancer in Scotland – that’s more than 11 people each day,” says Professor Ray Donnelly, the Foundation’s president.

“Despite this, awareness of the signs and symptoms of lung cancer is low and more than two thirds of patients are diagnosed at a stage when curative treatment is no longer an option.

“Once patients are diagnosed with lung cancer, there are significant variations across the country in treatment and outcomes.”

Mary, meanwhile, is determined to remain positive. “My first great grandchild is due in February,” she says.

“I’m definitely going to put all this behind me and concentrate on just enjoying being a great grandmother.”

Macmillan Cancer Support provides help and information on all forms of cancer. Go to www.macmillan.org.uk or call 0808 800 00 00

* Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation, www.roycastle.org.

WHAT TO WATCH OUT FOR

LUNG cancer has the highest mortality rate of all cancers.

Only 30 per cent of lung cancer patients survive a year after diagnosis, compared with 94 per cent of breast cancer, 93 per cent of prostate cancer and 75 per cent of bowel cancer patients.

Women are being increasingly affected by lung cancer while figures for men are decreasing. Yet according to recent research from Macmillan Cancer Support, most women asked admit they would not know what signs or symptoms to look for.

Symptoms of lung cancer include: a continuing cough or a change in a long-standing cough pattern; coughing up blood stained phlegm; a dull ache, or a sharp pain, when you cough or take a deep breath; increasing breathlessness or wheezing, and a hoarse voice.

These symptoms may be caused by other illnesses or infections as well. Check with your GP – when cancers are found at an early stage there is a much better chance of survival.

Smoking can be a key factor in the development of lung cancer. Scotland has the highest UK smoking prevalence at 24 per cent, three per cent higher than England and Wales.