The technology to screen long-time smokers for lung cancer has been available for several years. This innovative technique, called low-dose screening CT of chest, makes it possible for doctors to identify lung cancer at an early stage, before patients begin to show symptoms and when the disease is most treatable and potentially curable. Unfortunately, far too few people who are at high risk of developing lung cancer—the number-one cancer killer in both men and women—are taking advantage of the opportunity to be screened.
James Tita, DO, a critical care pulmonologist with Mercy Health – Respiratory Specialists, explains, “Despite the fact that low-dose CT screening has been available for about six years now, less than five percent of patients who are eligible for screening are actually getting it. In fact, currently, 85 percent of lung cancers are diagnosed at an advanced stage, meaning they’re not curable.”
As the name suggests, low-dose CT delivers a reduced level of radiation to the patient compared to a normal CT scan, roughly equivalent to that of a mammogram, ensuring that it’s safe for patients to get screened on an annual basis over a long period. Simply put, catching malignant nodules in the lungs early on with this technology saves lives. “It’s estimated that there will be about 180,000 new cases of lung cancer in the US this year. Low-dose CT scanning has been shown to reduce the risk of lung cancer mortality by about 20 percent over historical averages. With this technology, we can save about five lives for every 1,000 we screen,” Dr. Tita states.
Individuals between the ages of 55 and 77 who have at least a 30-pack-year history of smoking (the equivalent of smoking one pack of cigarettes per day for 30 years or two packs a day for 15 years) or who quit smoking less than 15 years ago are considered candidates to have this screening. Dr. Tita notes that the recommended age range for screening will be expanded next year to ages 50 to 80. Furthermore, low-dose CT screening is now covered by Medicare, Medicaid, and commercial insurances.
The Mercy Health – Lung Nodule Screening Program offers low-dose CT scanning in eight locations throughout our community and recently achieved an impressive, potentially record-breaking, number of lung cancer screenings—about 223 in a single month. “Our primary goal is to catch malignancies early, ideally in stage 1, when they can usually be removed surgically and the cure rate is highest,” states lung nurse navigator Kendal Delaney, RN, BSN, who heads the program.
Delaney points out that, in addition to low-dose CT, a major component of the Mercy Health – Lung Nodule Screening Program is smoking cessation. “For most of the patients we screen, smoking is still an issue. I stress to all of them that smoking is the number-one preventable cause of death and that quitting might prevent them from ever needing the services of our surgeons,” she says.
Dr. Tita adds, “When you quit smoking, your risk of lung cancer goes down almost immediately, and after about 15 years, you’re near the level of risk as someone who never smoked.”
Despite the recent substantial uptick in patients getting screened through Mercy Health’s program, too many people at high risk of developing lung cancer are still slipping through the cracks. Either they’re failing to get screened at all or they’re going for their initial screening and then failing to follow up. Delaney notes that this “one-and-done” mindset is a major roadblock when it comes to catching lung cancer early and saving lives through screening, so she and her team continually strive to educate patients and their primary care providers on the importance of follow-up—especially when an initial screening identifies something suspicious.
Dr. Tita shares Delaney’s concern, stating, “In some cases, patients come in for an initial screening and get a good result, meaning no nodules are found, and then think they’re done. But high-risk individuals need to get screened on a yearly basis. Just because they don’t have lung cancer this year doesn’t mean it can’t show up next year.”
When low-dose CT screening reveals something suspicious, patients can rest assured that they’ll get the support and follow-through they need. Dr. Tita comments, “Every month, we have a conference here that includes myself representing pulmonology, a radiation oncologist, a medical oncologist, a radiologist, and a thoracic surgeon. Together we go over all the cases that are worrisome for cancer and make recommendations for the patient’s care to the provider who ordered the study. It’s a very active process to ensure patients get a comprehensive evaluation and the appropriate treatment if necessary.”
For more information visit mercy.com and search lung screening or call 419-407-1740. Patients wanting to schedule lung screening can call scheduling at 419-407-1770 and follow the options.