November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month. According to a survey from the American Lung Association, only 29% of Americans know that lung cancer is the leading cancer killer of women and men, and only 36% know that lung cancer screening is available.
“To defeat lung cancer, we need to raise awareness about lung cancer screening,” said Lake Regional Radiologist Michael Vierra, M.D. “Lung cancer screening finds 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.”
Who Is High-Risk?
According to Medicare, you are considered at high risk for lung cancer and a candidate for a free screening if all three of these things are true for you:
- You have a smoking history of 20 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 two packs a day for 10 years, that would be 20 pack years.
- You smoke now, or you quit within the last 15 years.
- You’re between 50 and 77 years old.
Medicare’s guidelines differ from those of the American Lung Association, which recommends lung cancer screening for anyone who is between 50 and 80 years old, has a smoking history of 20 pack years or more, and smokes now or quit within the last 15 years.
A Life-Saving Tool
Early detection is possible with low-dose computed tomography. 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 lungs.
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 with any screening, 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 Joe Sohal, M.D., can perform an 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 their insurance covers it or that it’s available so close to home,” Dr. Vierra said. “Sadly, only 22% of lung cancer cases are diagnosed early, but this number can definitely improve. Raising awareness about lung cancer screening is absolutely critical to saving lives.”
Those interested in receiving lung cancer screening should discuss the testing with their doctor. A physician’s order is required for the service.