November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month. The sooner lung cancer is diagnosed, the better the chances for survival. Until recently, however, early detection has been difficult — which may be one reason why lung cancer remains the No. 1 cancer killer of both men and women in the U.S.
But there is good news about the disease: Doctors now have a screening test that can catch lung cancer early. It’s called low-dose computed tomography (LDCT).
LDCT produces cross-sectional images of the entire chest, including the lungs, using special X-ray equipment and sophisticated computers. These images enable doctors to detect very small nodules in the lung.
“A low-dose CT scan can reveal lung cancer in its earliest stages,” said Lake Regional Radiologist Michael Vierra, M.D. “It’s a simple test that saves lives.”
Who Needs Testing?
Medicare covers an annual LDCT scan for people at high risk for lung cancer. You are at high risk if all three of these things are true for you:
- You have a smoking history of 30 pack years or more. To figure your pack years, take the number of packs you smoked per day multiplied by the number of years you smoked. For example: If you smoked 2 packs a day for 15 years, that would be 30 pack years.
- You smoke now, or you quit within the last 15 years.
- You’re between 55 and 77 years old.
What Are the Risks and Benefits?
The biggest benefit of lung cancer screening is that it can find lung cancer in its beginning stages, which helps lower the risk of dying from the disease.
Early diagnosis also means that doctors might be able to use minimally invasive surgery to remove the cancer and preserve more lung tissue.
Other benefits of LDCT lung cancer screening include:
- It’s fast, painless and noninvasive.
- It uses much less radiation than a traditional CT scan of the chest.
There are possible risks, including the chance that the test might indicate cancer when no cancer is present. This is called a false positive and can cause anxiety and lead to more invasive tests. Although it’s impossible to avoid all false-positive results, getting incredibly detailed imaging helps.
“Our 128-slice scanner captures exceptional detail, and it does so at a high scan speed,” Dr. Vierra said. “That means patients do not have to hold their breath as long, so we get better images and need fewer rescans.”
What If There’s a Concern?
If screening identifies an area of concern, Lake Regional Pulmonologist Harjyot “Joe” Sohal, M.D., can perform endobronchial ultrasound, also called EBUS. In this procedure, Dr. Sohal uses a scope to view multiple areas of the lungs and to collect tissue samples. He can determine whether there is cancer and if so, how far it has spread — all without invasive surgery.
Getting the Word Out
Unfortunately, most Americans at high risk for lung cancer do not get screened.
“We know there are hundreds of people in our area who need this screening but who aren’t aware that Medicare covers it or that it’s available so close to home,” Dr. Vierra said. “We want to reach these people with what could be lifesaving information.”
Those interested in receiving lung cancer screening should discuss the testing with their doctor. A physician’s order is required for the service.
Lake Regional Health System provides comprehensive health care services to residents and visitors throughout the mid-Missouri region. The hospital is a Level II Stroke Center, Level II STEMI (heart attack) Center and Level III Trauma Center. Lake Regional also provides a wide range of specialties, including cancer care, heart care, orthopedics and women’s health. Plus, Lake Regional operates primary care clinics, Express Care clinics, rehab therapy clinics, programs for home health and hospice, and retail pharmacies.