Dame Esther Rantzen faces stage four lung cancer: key facts about the disease

26 May 2023

Dame Esther Rantzen has revealed that her lung cancer has progressed to stage four, after previously announcing in January that she had been diagnosed with the disease.

The Childline founder and broadcaster told The Mirror that “nobody knows” if the new medication she is trying is working and a scan “will reveal one way or another”.

Earlier in the year, Rantzen, 82, said she had “decided not to keep this secret any more because I find it difficult to skulk around various hospitals wearing an unconvincing disguise” and was “remaining optimistic”.

Stage four is when cancer has spread from where it started to another body organ, according to Cancer Research UK, and is also called secondary or metastatic cancer.

More than 43,000 people are diagnosed with lung cancer every year in the UK, according to the NHS, making it one of the most common forms of cancer – yet the disease is often shrouded in myths and misconceptions.

So, what do you need to know? Here are some important facts about lung cancer…

1. Lung cancer can affect people of any age

According to John Costello, a pulmonologist at the Mayo Clinic: “Lung cancer is certainly more common in older people – the average age of diagnosis is 70 years.”

This does not mean it only ever affects older age groups, however. Lisa Jacques, lead specialist cancer nurse at Perci Health, says: “Most people develop lung cancer in their 60s and 70s, after many years of smoking, but occasionally people get lung cancer at a much younger age, even in their 20s and 30s.”

2. Lung cancer is not always caused by smoking

Although smoking can certainly increase your chances of developing lung cancer, it is not the only cause.

“Smoking is the cause of most lung cancers and the biggest risk factor, but about 10% of people who get lung cancer have never smoked,” explains Jacques.

Costello adds: “There are some lung cancers which are genetic and may not be smoking-related, and some others are caused by exposures to substances like asbestos, radon gas and passive smoking” – although he says these are “relatively uncommon”.

3. Stopping smoking can help protect you

Costello says: “Some of the damage and inflammation caused by smoking can be reversible, but in particular, emphysema is architectural destruction of the lung which causes extreme breathlessness and cannot be reversed.”

So quitting smoking might reduce your risk and is always worthwhile for your health – but not starting the habit at all is much better. Speak to your GP if you would like support with quitting.

4. Lung cancer is not always deadly

A diagnosis of lung cancer does not always mean certain death, but it is still serious.

“Lung cancer has a 65% survival rate for five years in people with localised disease,” says Costello. “If it has spread around the body at the time of diagnosis, the survival rate is only 8%.”

However, he says there are “new techniques in screening for lung cancer, such as CT scans in smokers over 50 years with a serious tobacco background”. These “may pick up very small early tumours, which can be removed with up to an 80-90% five-year survival rate”.

So if you have concerns about a persistent cough, which is one of the key warning signs, see your GP and get it checked out as soon as possible.

5. Men are more likely to get it but women still need to be aware

According to Cancer Research UK, men are more likely to get the disease than women (52% of lung cancer cases are men, compared to 48% of women). However, these margins are small, and women absolutely do need to be aware of lung cancer as well.

“Lung cancer has been an increasing problem in women since they caught up with men in terms of smoking habit, and they are therefore at risk if they smoke, and some of the non-smoking related lung cancers are more common in women,” says Costello.

Jacques adds: “It is the third most common cancer in the UK, and in women it is the second most common cancer type.”

So, whether you smoke or not, look out for the symptoms of lung cancer – like a cough lasting longer than two or three weeks, recurring chest infections, breathlessness or aches and pains when breathing – and see your GP if you have any concerns.

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