By Sid Roberts, MD
Lufkin Radiation Oncologist
This article originally appeared on Dr. Roberts' blog.
For more than 50 years now, we have known the dangers of smoking. That smoking causes heart disease, emphysema, and lung and other cancers is not in dispute. For fifty years, we did not have an effective screening tool for lung cancer.
Now we do.
Medical imaging has improved so much that we are now able to do computerized tomography (CT) scans with significantly lower dose to the patient and at a low enough cost to warrant widespread use as a screening tool. Not everyone needs a scan, of course. But smokers who are at high risk of developing lung cancer now have an option for screening, much like mammography for early detection of breast cancer.
In 2011, the results of the National Lung Screening Trial (NLST) were published in the New England Journal of Medicine, arguably the foremost medical journal in the world. This trial screened current or former heavy smokers aged 55 to 74 with low-dose CT scanning of the chest and compared it to standard chest x-ray. The NLST primary trial results show 20 percent fewer lung cancer deaths among trial participants screened with CT compared to those who got screened with chest x-rays. This is huge news, because we haven’t cured a lot of lung cancer over the last 50 years! Based on these results, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) decided in 2015 to start paying for the procedure on January 1, 2016.
According to the American Cancer Society, in 2016 an estimated 224,390 people in the U.S. (117,920 men and 106,470 women) will be diagnosed with, and 158,080 men and women will die of, cancer of the lung and bronchus, the leading single cancer killer in the U.S. If everyone who was eligible got screened, more than 30,000 deaths from lung cancer could be averted every year.
There are more than 94 million current and former smokers in the U.S. at high risk for lung cancer. In 2014, an estimated 18.1 percent, or 40 million U.S. adults, were current cigarette smokers. Unfortunately, smoking rates in East Texas are higher than state and national averages. That means a lot of East Texans are eligible to be screened.
Starting last fall, CHI St. Luke’s Health Memorial began offering low-dose CT lung cancer screening to eligible patients. Medicare covers ages 55-77 (commercial insurance 55-80, but Aetna 55-79). Even within those age ranges, an eligible patient must be a current smoker (or quit no more than 15 years) with at least a 30 pack-year history of smoking (for example, smoking 1 pack per day for 30 years, or 2 packs per day for 15 years). And, eligible patients must have no symptoms of lung cancer (such as coughing up blood or unexplained weight loss of more than 15 pounds in the last year). If lung cancer is suspected, a standard CT chest should be done.
Finally, Medicare requires “shared decision making” on the risks and benefits of lung cancer screening, which means you must meet face to face with your primary care provider to get an order for screening.
Since we started screening at CHI St. Luke’s Health Memorial, more than 70 patients have been screened. Six abnormalities have been found (including an incidental kidney mass), and two lung cancers have been diagnosed. Those two cancer patients’ lives may have been saved by screening; only time will tell.
Of course, the best way to prevent lung cancer is by not smoking. Ever. Quit if you do smoke. And if you meet the criteria listed above, talk to your doctor about getting screened for lung cancer.
Dr. Sid Roberts is a radiation oncologist at the Arthur Temple, Sr. Regional Cancer Center in Lufkin. He is a contributing writer for the Lufkin Daily News and blogs at SRob61.blogspot.com.