A Vital Tool in a Deadly Battle
Changes in Lung Cancer Screening Could Save More Lives
While it is commonly thought of as a “smoker’s disease,” anyone can get lung cancer. In fact, one in 16 Americans will be diagnosed with lung cancer in their lifetime, according to the National Cancer Institute – that equals one diagnosis every 2.2 minutes. And while it is only the third most common cancer in the United States, it is the deadliest.
Fortunately, there are steps we can all take to reduce our risk for lung cancer and – if we do develop it – to increase our chances of survival. In addition to not smoking, it is vital that those at-risk for lung cancer are screened regularly.
“Because lung cancer often does not show symptoms until it is in the later stages and has already spread, early detection is very important for those at risk,” explains Linda Waring, Director of Diagnostic Imaging and Radiation Oncology at Dignity Health Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital. “This is particularly true for those who have smoked or currently smoke.”
Earlier this year the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF – the independent panel that develops recommendations for preventive care) changed its recommendations for lung cancer screening. The new guidelines nearly double the number of people eligible for lung cancer screening, both by lowering the recommended age range and reducing the minimum pack-year smoking history. (Pack-year history measures an individual’s exposure to tobacco; it’s defined as the number of packs of cigarettes smoked per day multiplied by the number of years a person has smoked.)
The new guidelines recommend screening for adults aged 50 to 80 years and have a pack-year history of 20 and who currently smoke or quit smoking within the past 15 years.
The USPSTF recommends screening be discontinued once a person has not smoked for 15 years or develops a health problem that substantially limits life expectancy or the ability or willingness to have lung surgery.
Waring says the reason for the change was simple. “The changes in the guidelines were made in order to allow more people to receive this life-saving screening.”
A low-dose computed tomography (better known as a low-dose CT) is the recommended tool for lung cancer screening.
“Lung cancer screening using low-dose CT can find nodules in the lungs early, before symptoms develop,” Waring says. “Finding lung cancer early reduces the risk of death. Lung cancer can be difficult to detect early without imaging, that’s why lung cancer screening with low dose CT is important.”
Waring says that by the time patients develop symptoms, their lung cancer is typically more advanced. Symptoms of lung cancer include a persistent cough, weakness, hoarseness, shortness of breath and fatigue.
The low-dose CT is specifically designed for patients with no signs or symptoms of lung cancer.
The guidelines recommend annual screening. This means that in order for lung cancer screening to be fully beneficial, eligible individuals need to be screened every year. Unfortunately, according to the USPSTF only 14% of current and former smokers who were eligible for lung cancer screening under the previous guidelines have been screened.
Experts do point out that not everyone who meets the screening criteria should get screened. Screening is generally not recommended for those who have poor lung function or other serious conditions that would make surgery difficult. This might include people who need continuous supplemental oxygen, have experienced unexplained weight loss in the past year, have coughed up blood recently or have had a chest CT scan in the last year.
“Lung cancer screening is not right for everyone,” Warning says. “If you develop other major health problems or if you are not willing to have lung surgery, lung cancer screening may not be right for you.”
She also points out that lung cancer screening is not a substitute for quitting smoking.
“Smoking is the number one cause of lung cancer and lung cancer is the number one cause of death by cancer for both men and women in the U.S.,” Waring says.
And the best weapon against those facts (other than quitting smoking), is early detection. Talk to your doctor about whether lung cancer screening is right for you.
For more information on Dignity Health Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital’s lung cancer screening program, call 530-274-6600.
In March of this year, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force changed their guidelines for lung cancer screening in the hopes of finding lung cancer earlier and in a younger population. They recommend low-dose CT screening for anyone who meets the following criteria:
■ Adult aged 50 to 80 years
■ 20 pack-year smoking history
■ Currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years
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