by Timothy W. Mullett, MD, MBA, FACS
November may be synonymous with Thanksgiving and the start of the holiday season, but the month also marks Lung Cancer Awareness Month. This holiday season, prompting conversations about lung cancer screenings (an imaging test to see if cancer may be present) could save the life of someone you love.
As a thoracic surgeon and Chair of the American College of Surgeons Commission on Cancer, I am reminded every day of lung cancer’s deadly footprint. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. In fact, according to the American Cancer Society, more people will die of lung cancer this year than of breast, prostate and colon cancer combined. The good news is that many of these deaths can be prevented with increased screenings to check for cancer. Unfortunately, only about 5%-15% of eligible patients are routinely screened for lung cancer, resulting in thousands of preventable deaths each year.
In recognition of my patients and those who have lost a loved one to lung cancer, here are three facts I would like everyone to know about lung cancer screening.
1. Screening works — and is more accessible than ever.
Decades ago, a diagnosis of lung cancer frequently meant a death sentence. Thankfully, we are lightyears ahead of where we used to be, with sophisticated screening tools and better treatment options for lung cancer patients. Recent data released by the American Lung Association shows that the overall survival rate from lung cancer, though still low and not equitable across communities, has increased considerably in recent years — demonstrating good progress over the past decade. Importantly, studies have proven that low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) scans can effectively screen for early-stage lung cancer. Other emerging research is looking at the use of sensitive blood tests, sputum samples (mucus from the lungs), and nasal swabs to detect lung cancer. With improved screening options, lung cancer can now be found at an early stage when it is most treatable. Many patients can live for several years with the disease, and some can be cured — the key is to catch it early.
2. Speak to your physician about screening options if you are 50 or older and smoke, or have smoked for 15 years.
Just as you make an appointment for a routine screening mammogram or colonoscopy, get screened for lung cancer if you are considered high-risk. I recommend trying to remember 50 +15: If you are 50 or older and have smoked for 15 years — even if you have quit — speak to your primary care physician about screening options with LDCT. LDCT may sound scary, but the test takes only a few minutes to complete and is usually covered by most insurance plans for eligible patients. Your primary care physician can guide you through screening options and determine when you should start screening.
3. Talk openly with a physician who understands you.
People who have never smoked can be diagnosed with lung cancer, but currently, one of the best ways to reduce your risk of getting lung cancer is to quit smoking — it really is never too late to kick the nicotine habit. Bringing up such habits with your doctor can be uncomfortable, but he or she can guide you through practical ways to stop smoking, and also discuss ways to reduce your exposure to known environmental pollutants that can cause lung cancer. Never be afraid to advocate for your health, and if possible, try to find a primary care physician with whom you can have open conversations without judgment.
We have in our hands the tools to catch lung cancer early and provide better outcomes to patients newly diagnosed with the disease — it is now up to us to share this knowledge with our loved ones.
Learn more about lung cancer at: www.facs.org/lung.
Timothy W. Mullett, MD, MBA, FACS, is Chair of the American College of Surgeons Commission on Cancer. He also serves as a professor of general thoracic surgery and medical director of the Markey Cancer Center Affiliate Network at the University of Kentucky, Lexington. A surgical oncologist who specializes in the treatment of lung cancer, he is a co-leader and principal investigator of the Kentucky LEADS Collaborative, which works to improve lung cancer survival and optimize the quality of lung cancer screening programs.