November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month and over the past 20 years significant progress has been made to improve survival rates. Research, knowledge of prevention, and innovative treatment are essential to sustain the momentum, but COVID-19 stands to hinder this progress.
The UK’s Sky News released an article on the troubling setback of lung cancer care as a result of 2020’s global pandemic. Citing a recent report from the UK Lung Cancer Coalition (UKLCC), COVID-19 is said to be “reversing improvement in survival rates,” due to overlapping symptoms, delayed diagnosis, and limited access to care.
According to the World Health Organization, COVID-19 is an infectious disease that targets the respiratory system. Breathing is compromised and patients exhibit symptoms such as a dry cough, sore throat, and shortness of breath. Similarly, lung cancer directly interferes with the function of the respiratory system leading patients to develop some of the same symptoms associated with COVID-19. The overlap in symptoms is what Sky News reports to be the source of COVID-19 misdiagnoses among lung cancer patients.
Due to its current global impact, COVID-19 is taking precedence in healthcare. Out of fear, patients are avoiding hospitals or their doctor’s office, and healthcare providers are trying to make sure they are controlling the spread of the virus. Without question, the focus in healthcare has shifted, which is why it makes sense that lung cancer patients are being misdiagnosed.
Professor Sir Mike Richards, former director of the National Cancer Institute states in the article that these misdiagnoses are leading to, “late stage presentations” of lung cancer. After an unaware lung cancer patient is diagnosed with COVID-19, he or she is asked to self-isolate while awaiting test results and monitoring symptoms for two weeks. However, lung cancer survival is dependent on timing and this makes early detection important. Unfortunately, that two-week period of isolation can become two-weeks in which cancer has the potential to progress.
The UKLCC’s report shares that GP referrals to lung cancer specialists dropped by 75% at the height of COVID-19, yet the number of deaths from lung cancer grew at an increased rate since the beginning of the pandemic. This indicates that misdiagnoses of COVID-19 may be contributing to the decreasing survival rate for lung cancer due to late-stage diagnosis or unaddressed symptoms all together. The possibility of this correlation alone means that it is necessary to bring public awareness to the converging symptoms of COVID-19 and lung cancer.
The UKLCC recommends an increase in campaigns and accessible resources to provide education to the public regarding COVID-19 and lung cancer. Despite the presence of COVID-19 and its dominance in the healthcare system, it is crucial to know how to self-examine and recognize the symptoms of both cases.
Patients who equip themselves with the knowledge to self-advocate, will make it easier for their doctors to determine a diagnosis. The ability to acknowledge one’s risk of developing lung cancer, by referring to family history and lifestyle, can provide doctors with enough information to make a referral to a lung cancer specialist if necessary. From voicing concern, patients may help to alleviate the strain on healthcare professionals who are overwhelmed and dedicated to stopping the spread of COVID-19. A collective effort to learn more about what is unknown to us, makes the challenge less daunting and medical progress far more attainable.
United Kingdom Lung Cancer Coalition. (2020, October).COVID-19 Matters: A review of the Impact of COVID-19 on the Lung Cancer Pathway and Opportunities for Innovation Emerging from the Health System Response to Pandemic. UKLCC. pp. 9.
The World Health Organization (WHO). (2020, October 12).Coronavirus disease (COVID-19). World Health Organization.
Sky News. (2020, October 21). Coronavirus: Lung cancers ‘may have been misdiagnosed as COVID’ during pandemic. Sky News.
United Kingdom Lung Cancer Coalition. (2020, October).COVID-19 Matters: A review of the Impact of COVID-19 on the Lung Cancer Pathway and Opportunities for Innovation Emerging from the Health System Response to Pandemic. UKLCC. pp. 12.