Early Screening for Lung Cancer Can Be a Lifesaver

Dusty Donaldson had a “tingle” in his throat and a slightly swollen lymph node in his neck. Initially, her doctor ruled out her symptoms, but she knew something was wrong. She pushed for an answer, and after multiple tests, she was diagnosed with lung cancer.

As an 18-year lung cancer survivor, she considers herself one of the lucky ones and is now a passionate advocate for early detection of lung cancer, an option that didn’t exist when she was diagnosed in 2005.

“I immediately realized the need to promote lung cancer because it has a very high mortality rate and there is a stigma associated with the disease,” he said.

Lung cancer kills more women than any other cancer in the United States. About 164 women die every day and 130,000 people die each year from the disease.

“While it’s not the most common type of cancer, it is the leading cause of death in both men and women,” said Jennifer Duke, MD, a pulmonologist and interventional pulmonology fellow at Vanderbilt University. “One of the reasons the disease is so deadly is that patients often go a considerable period of time without developing symptoms. Lung cancer can stay in the lung tissue and grow and grow, and when patients develop symptoms (such as cough, shortness of breath, coughing up blood, weight loss), we find that these cancers are usually quite advanced by then. of the diagnosis”.

That’s where early detection of lung cancer can make a difference: helping people get an early diagnosis and potentially prolong their lives.

Read: Lung cancer kills an alarming number of women, but there is hope >>

“If you catch lung cancer or certain types of lung cancer when it’s early and localized, your survival rate can be around 60% at five years,” Duke explained. “That may not sound great, but patients who are diagnosed with late-stage disease, specifically metastatic disease, have a survival rate of about 6%.”

What is early detection of lung cancer?

Early detection of lung cancer involves a low-dose CT scan, which is a special type of X-ray that delivers a low dose of radiation to take detailed pictures of areas inside the body. The images are stitched together using a computer, providing a three-dimensional view of your organs. Patients lie on a table that moves in and out of the machine as the images are captured.

“We don’t use dyes or injectables, and you don’t need to drink anything to make it,” Duke said. “You lie on a table, and usually within a few minutes, the low-dose CT scan is complete and the images are sent to a radiologist, who then reads them to see if there are any problems, such as small nodules. or enlargement of the lymph. nodes or anything that may appear abnormal.”

If the images are clean, an annual screening is recommended. If there is something worrisome on the images, the person may need further scans or a biopsy.

Early detection with a low-dose CT scan can literally save a life. The National Pulmonary Screening Trialwhich included 50,000 participants, found that people who received low-dose CT scans had a 15% to 20% lower risk of dying from lung cancer than people who only received regular X-rays.

“Low-dose CT is painless, easy and faster than almost any other type of cancer screening,” said Donaldson, who directs LiveLunga non-profit organization that advocates for lung cancer awareness and promotes early detection and compassion for those affected by lung cancer.

Who qualifies for early detection of lung cancer?

Currently, the guidelines created by the US Preventive Services Task Force recommend early screening for people ages 50 to 80 who currently smoke or have quit smoking in the past 15 years and have a smoking history of at least 20 pack-years.

“We multiplied the number of years people have smoked by the number of packs they smoked per day,” Duke explained. “So if you’ve smoked 2 packs a day for 10 years, that would be a 20 pack-year smoking history.”

Many insurance plans and Medicare will cover the cost of early detection for patients who meet the high-risk eligibility criteria. Despite this, only about 2 out of 10 eligible people get an early assessment for lung cancer.

“It’s a matter of awareness,” Donaldson said. “People just don’t know.”

And because of the stigma surrounding smokers and lung cancer, smokers may avoid the subject for fear of being judged for their habit. Donaldson advises loved ones of those at high risk to notify them about early detection.

“Just by telling someone about the screenings, you’re actually throwing them a lifeline instead of just scolding or condemning someone for having a smoking history or for being a current smoker,” he said.

Barriers to early detection

He Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that as many as 2 in 10 lung cancer diagnoses in the United States (or between 20,000 and 40,000 per year) involve nonsmokers or people who have smoked fewer than 100 cigarettes in their lifetime. AND A study suggests that the number is increasing.

This raises the question: How can people who are not at high risk get early detection when they are not eligible? Health care providers (HCPs) may be reluctant to suggest screening for people who are not at high risk, even if they have some symptoms. Although studies are ongoing on the increasing rate of non-smokers with lung cancer, it may be a long time before there are changes in eligibility recommendations.

Read: I never smoked and I had lung cancer >>

Talk to your doctor about any other risk factors, such as secondhand smoke, radon exposure, air pollution, a family history of lung cancer, and whether you served in the military or had other jobs that may have exposed you to asbestos. .

“It is important to recognize that these recommendations are in place to benefit the greatest number of people in the most health-promoting way,” Duke said. “So just because someone doesn’t meet the high-risk criteria doesn’t necessarily mean their concerns aren’t real and important.”

People who are not high risk can still get some insurance coverage for early detection, but they may also have to pay a considerable amount out of pocket. It is important to discuss your options with your doctor.

If your doctor doesn’t listen to your concerns or just wants another perspective, seek a second opinion. Ask for a referral to a lung specialist or find one yourself. Just make sure beforehand that they accept your insurance.

Advocating for early detection is something Donaldson preaches to others. And it’s also something he thinks about when he looks back on his own journey with lung cancer. He would not have been eligible even if there had been an early screening when he was diagnosed because he had quit smoking 26 years earlier.

“If you have symptoms and are concerned, whether or not you meet the guidelines, don’t take no for an answer,” he said.

This resource was created with the support of Daiichi Sankyo and Merck.

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