Lung cancer patients still receive same treatment as King George VI, says Manchester historian

By Tom Belger

Lung cancer survival rates barely any better today than they were in the 1950s, a Manchester University medical historian revealed this week.

The researcher, who is based at the University’s Centre for the History of Science, believes that although major advances have been seen in treating other cancers, lung cancer is still as hard to deal with as it was 60 years ago.

Dr Carsten Timmermann said that one in 12 people survive the illness for five years and one in twenty survive for ten years making it the biggest cancer killer.

He said: “Sadly, my research shows that lung cancer patients have enjoyed few of these improvements. New therapies simply haven’t made a difference to their survival.”

“Lung cancer patients today still receive essentially the same treatment as King George VI did in 1952.”

His discovery is outlined in his new book, A History of Lung Cancer: The Recalcitrant Disease, the first book about the illness ever published.

The book also shows that around 40,000 people are diagnosed with lung cancer in the UK each year making it the second most common cancer.

However survival rates and treatment are so low because many are unable to have surgery as they are not physically fit enough.

“Lung cancer is an extremely difficult area. It’s hard to treat and hard to research,” Dr Timmermann added.

“And since the 1950s, it has been associated with smoking, and there’s a stigma attached to that as well.”

Dr Timmermann’s book shows that lung cancer is not a modern disease like many believe revealing in the 1800s it would have been diagnosed as a form of consumption.

“Approximately 2,000 men and 3,000 women in the UK die from lung cancer every year, but have never smoked,” Dr Timmermann highlighted.

“So even this figure is still higher than the 4,500 deaths from leukaemia.

“There’s every reason to suspect that this was also true in the 1800s.”

Dr Timmermann now wants to see more people get the right surgery so the chances of surviving lung cancer can be improved.

“If you do receive surgery at specialist chest units, your chances of survival certainly will be better,” he said.

“But recent lung cancer audits show that referral figures for chest surgery could still be better. There remains a strong need to improve access to this therapy.”

Survival figures following chest surgery is only 25% after five years and only 15% after 10 years or longer but Dr Timmermann feels these figures can improve. 

He said: “We put too much emphasis on finding a great new cure for cancer, and that cure is always just around the corner.

“We expect medicine to be about science and progress, but for lung cancer the one thing that has made a difference is ensuring patients, who could expect to benefit from surgery, receive surgery.”

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