It’s not often that there is “good news” about lung cancer. The American Lung Association points out that this disease is the leading cause of cancer death in American men and women.
The five-year survival rate for all stages is only 17 percent, compared to 92 percent for all stages of breast cancer.
That is largely because lung cancer has usually progressed to late stages before being discovered, and then it can’t be treated or cured, according to Rebecca Parsons, oncology social worker for the Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital Community Cancer Center.
But the good news is that Medicare and most other insurance plans now cover the cost of a low-dose CT screening, or soon will. These screenings can detect lung cancer early, when effective treatment is still possible.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a national organization that investigates preventive services, has recently recommended that the screening be given annually to those who are at high risk of lung cancer.
Early detection makes a significant difference, according to Suzanne Belew, a clinical specialist in the Respiratory Therapy Department at Dignity Health Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital.
“Statistics reveal that if lung cancer is diagnosed at its earliest stage and is surgically removed, the survival rate has improved to 53 percent,” she said.
Parsons shares that she is excited about the new recommendation and the fact that the screening is available at the hospital through its Diagnostic Imaging Center.
She has seen the effects of late diagnosis close-up, working with patients and their families who are facing the grim futures usually heralded by this disease. To bring that home, she noted that 50 cases of lung cancer were diagnosed at the hospital in 2012. Fourteen were at stage one, but 18 were at stage three and 17 at stage four. Chances for effective treatment in stages three and four are bleak, she said.
“Once a person has symptoms it is a later stage and not usually curable,” she said.
Now that the screening is recommended and covered by insurance, Parsons said, “We want to encourage high risk patients to partake in the screening. Cancer is so scary, and lung cancer has such a bad reputation because it is usually found late, that some people are too afraid to be screened. But now that we can inform them that lung cancer found early is treatable and curable, we really invite people to take charge of their lives and exercise their power.”
Ideal candidates for the low-dose CT screening are people 50 and older who are heavy smokers who have quit after smoking for many years, or who have other risk factors including a personal history of cancer, family history of lung cancer, significant exposure to occupational carcinogens and smoke, or detection of a lung nodule or spot found on a chest x-ray or CT scan.
Sierra Nevada Memorial has a comprehensive cancer detection program that includes navigator support to provide education and assistance throughout the screening and testing process.
Clients will need referrals from their primary care doctors. The Diagnostic Imaging Center collaborates with many local physicians and can find a primary care physician to provide a referral and follow up for patients without regular doctors, Belew added.
“CT scanning for lung cancer is safe, fast and simple,” she emphasized. “The low-dose scan is only 30 percent of the radiation exposure used in a typical CT scan procedure.”
The actual scan takes only 30 seconds, she said.
If cancer is found, Parsons said the Cancer Center offers an Integrated, Comprehensive Program for Cancer Survivorship that connects patients with a full complement of support, from insurance information to support groups and classes, and nutritional therapy consultations.
This support continues after cancer treatment with offerings such as pulmonary reconditioning classes to help people recover after they’ve had chemotherapy, radiation or surgery.
“The six-week, individualized program provides education in breathing, respiratory medication and therapies, energy conservation techniques, nutrition, and exercise to increase muscle strength and endurance,” Belew explained.
The No.1 one risk factor for lung cancer is cigarette smoking. The hospital offers six-week smoking cessation programs throughout the year, with the next session beginning April 2. The program fee of $60 is waived for individuals who have the lung cancer screening.
For additional information about low-dose CT screening for lung cancer, call (530) 274-6600
All physicians providing care for patients at SNMH are members of the medical staff and are independent practitioners, not employees of the hospital.