Although lung cancer is one of the most common types of cancer with more than 41,000 people diagnosed with the condition every year in the UK, there are currently no screening programs for detection of the disease within the UK.

Unfortunately, lung cancer does not usually cause noticeable symptoms until it has spread through much of the lungs or into other parts of the body. Consequently, late detection of the disease results in a poorer outlook for lung cancer patients and it is currently estimated that 75% of lung cancer patients are diagnosed too late to save them.

The good news is that  there are a number of screening trials being conducted in Belgium, the Netherlands (Nelson trial) and in the UK to determine the effectiveness of screening programmes for lung cancer. Pending the results of these trials, it is hoped that a screening programme should be set-up in the UK by 2016.

Professor Field, who is leading the UK Lung Cancer Screening trial, believes screening for lung cancer using low-dose computed tomography [CT scans] could reduce this enormous burden of mortality through early detection and treatment that improves survival. About 70% of patients will survive their disease for a year or more if it is diagnosed at its earliest stage. However, while research suggests that such low-dose CT screening can reduce lung cancer deaths, the possible harms with any such radiation exposure must be balanced with the benefits.

The director of programmes for the UK National Screening Committee, which is part of Public Health England, has advised that: “Any screening programme will only be recommended if the benefits clearly outweigh the harms following an assessment of the evidence against internationally agreed criteria.”

Naomi Holland, an associate in the Penningtons Manches clinical negligence team, says: “Without any screening programs for lung cancer in place, diagnosis of the disease is reliant on patients noticing symptoms that prompt them to seek medical advice. Sadly, as the statistics demonstrate, the current way in which the disease is diagnosed is far from effective because, by the time patients are symptomatic, the disease has progressed. 

“We see many cases involving late diagnosis of cancer, particularly as a result of symptoms not being appropriately acted on by GPs, resulting in delays in investigations and/or referrals being made to specialists. We hope that the implementation of any screening programs will further reduce the number of lung cancer deaths, and that the results of the trials into the efficacy of any screening programs support the implementation of routine screening within the UK and can be put in place relatively quickly.”