Sensations, symptoms, and then what? Early bodily experiences prior to diagnosis of lung cancer

Britt-Marie Bernhardson* (Corresponding Author), Carol Tishelman, BH Rasmussen , Senada Hajdarevic, M Malmström, Hasle TL Overgaard , Louise Locock, Lars E Eriksson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


Lung cancer (LC) generally lacks unique core symptoms or signs. However, there are a multitude of bodily sensations that are often non-specific, not easily understood, and many times initially not recognized as indicative of LC by the affected person, which often leads to late diagnosis. In this international qualitative study, we inductively analyzed retrospective accounts of 61 people diagnosed with LC in Denmark, England and Sweden. Using the bodily sensations they most commonly spoke about (tiredness, breathlessness, pain, and cough), we constructed four sensation-based cases to understand the pre-diagnostic processes of reasoning and practice triggered by these key indicators of LC. We thereafter critically applied Hay’s model of sensations to symptoms transformation, examining its central concepts of duration, disability and vulnerability, to support understanding of these processes. We found that while duration and disability are clearly relevant, vulnerability is more implicitly expressed in relation to perceived threat. Tiredness, even when of long duration and causing disability, was often related to normal aging, rather than a health threat. Regardless of duration, breathlessness was disturbing and threatening enough to lead to care-seeking. Pain varied by location, duration and degree of disability, and thus also varied in degree of threat perceived. Preconceived, but unmet expectations of what LC-related cough and pain would entail could cause delays by misleading participants; if cough lasted long enough, it could trigger health care contact. Duration, disability, and sense of threat, rather than vulnerability, were found to be relevant concepts for understanding the trajectory to diagnosis for LC among these participants. The process by which an individual, their family and health care providers legitimize sensations, allowing them to be seen as potential symptoms of disease, is also an essential, but varying part of the diagnostic processes described here.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0249114
Number of pages16
JournalPloS ONE
Issue number3
Early online date29 Mar 2021
Publication statusPublished - 29 Mar 2021


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