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Yes, it might be lung cancer

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If you have a cough for more than three weeks, you might have lung cancer and so you should see your GP. So says a current advertising campaign, funded by the NHS, which appears on most websites I visit.

‘If you’ve been coughing for over three weeks, it might not be “only a cough”. So tell your doctor,’ it says. Then you get a picture of Dr Ian Watson, who may or may not be real and who may or may not be the author of those words, but who is certainly in the ‘chiselled jaw and stethoscope round the neck’ class with Dr Hilary Jones and his ilk. The type who divide their time between the surgery, the sofa on breakfast TV, and having daily handsome lessons.

Of course, he could be right. It might be lung cancer. It just probably isn’t. More probably for some than for others – this week I had to reassure the mother of an eight-year-old that his three-week cough might need some treatment, but not an X-ray at this stage and certainly not chemotherapy. I think she was already picturing him bald, at Disneyland.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking this campaign. We are not good, in the UK, at picking up lung cancer while it is still in the operable phase – which is odd when you think about how much industrial lung disease we have suffered, as a nation. Perhaps subconsciously we feel that a bit of ‘inflammation o’ t’lungs’ is just one of those manly things that working-class blokes get. Blood-stained phlegm? Just spit it into the coal fire and make it sizzle.

While looking up a bit of background on this campaign, however, I got a sobering insight into what can potentially happen if we follow every minor symptom to its logical conclusion. The Benenden Healthcare Society (and I should point out here that Benendenexists purely to sell private health insurance) has surveyed 2,000 people and discovered that we will each suffer an average of 9,762 ailments or injuries in our lifetimes. As we’re each attending our GP’s surgery about 400 times during our lives, it seems difficult to comprehend how we might fit them all in. That’s over 24 complaints per consultation, which seems excessive even in those surgeries that offer 15-minute appointments. Perhaps not all are worthy of a doctor’s appointment.

Deeper analysis makes this look more likely. You’ll have 2,808 bumps or bruises during your time on this earth. You’ll have blocked sinuses 312 times, and heartburn exactly the same number of times. Someone else appears to be having all my sinus trouble, but I’m shouldering at least four of my fellow citizen’s acid reflux.

You’ll suffer 234 shaving cuts, which seems excessive. I’ve done it twice, so the rest of you please shave only when sober and not during parachute jumps. You’ll also crick your neck 318 times, have 468 ‘stomach upsets’ (different from heartburn, then) and an astonishing 78 eye infections. I’ll put my reputation on the line and call that one a lie.

One quarter of us admit to having stepped on an electric plug and hurt their foot. Presumably the rest of us were too pissed to remember, because everyone has done that. Only a bit of discarded Lego is more painful in the dark.

The spokesperson from Benenden advises us that the human body takes a terrible daily bashing, and his advice is ‘washing hands regularly, maintaining good posture, eating healthily and exercising to stay fit and well’.

Thanks for that, spokesperson. Another finding of your survey, although one that you did not publish, is that the number of average deaths suffered by humans remains at one, and is not likely to change any time soon, no matter how good our posture might become.

Dr Phil Peverley is a GP in Sunderland

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