Lung cancer screening: Early detection saves lives

NEW ULM — Although lung cancer is not the most common cancer, it remains the most deadly cancer in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more people die from lung cancer each year in the United States than from any other cancer. This is true for both men and women.

As with most cancers, early detection of lung cancer can mean the difference between life and death. Unfortunately, many times lung cancer does not cause symptoms until it has spread to other parts of the body.

New Ulm Medical Center (NUMC) began offering a lung cancer screening program to appropriate patients in August. Persons are eligible for low-dose lung cancer screening if they

are between the ages of 55 and 80

have no signs or symptoms of lung cancer (coughing up blood, trouble breathing, frequent infections, fatigue and unexpected weight loss)

smoke now or have quit within the last 15 years

have a history of heavy smoking (30 pack year history). This means that they have smoked one pack of cigarettes a day for 30 years or two packs a day for 15 years.

In 2011, the National Lung Screening Trial showed a 20 percent decrease in lung cancer deaths in heavy smokers who received a low-dose lung cancer screening exam. Many people who are diagnosed with lung cancer die because it is found at a very late stage. This screening helps to find lung cancer at an early stage, so treatment options are more successful.

“Lung cancer is one of the most challenging cancers to treat, mostly due to its late presentation, as more than half of newly diagnosed lung cancer patients have an advanced stage (stage IV) at time of diagnosis, when cancer is no longer curable,” said Anas Khanfar, MD, a board-certified oncologist with Virginia Piper Cancer Institute New Ulm, located in the lower level of the NUMC clinic. “This means that patients who are diagnosed with lung cancer in early stage with lung cancer screening can be cured and can make cancer part of their history. This screening has shown to decrease lung cancer by 20 percent, which is fascinating for both patients and doctors.”

“I strongly recommend all heavy smoker patients have lung cancer screening, as it can save their life,” Khanfar said.

The test itself is done by doing a low-dose CT (computed tomography) exam. A CT exam uses X-ray and a computer to get an in-depth look at the patient’s entire chest. The result is an image that provides a clear and detailed picture of the lungs.

Khanfar cautions, however, that just like most tests, it is not 100 percent accurate. Patients with an abnormal screening CT need to have more tests, as not all nodules or lesions in the lung are cancer.

Anita Riederer, PA-C, one of the providers at NUMC who works closely with this screening program, agrees.

“Patients should understand that often the scan will find small nodules or growths in the lungs, but most of those nodules are not cancer,” Riederer said. “The chances that something will be found that needs to be looked at more closely is high, but often that ‘something’ is not cancerous.”

About three or four of every 100 lung nodules found are cancer.

If further testing is required, the patient may be referred to a pulmonologist. See the accompanying article in today’s Health edition regarding pulmonology specialist Jonathan Hovda, MD, MBA, who began seeing patients at NUMC clinic in August.

If nothing suspicious is detected, the patient would fall into a routine 12-month follow-up schedule.

Lung cancer screening is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, some insurance providers do not cover the cost for this exam at this time. If patients choose to have the screening test done, they will have to pay any remaining amount not covered by their insurance provider. Coverage for this screening test is subject to the terms of the patient’s policy with his or her insurance provider. Patients are encouraged to call their insurance provider and determine whether this is a covered test.

The best way to lower the risk of lung cancer is to quit smoking, Riederer said. “There are more options available than ever before to help smokers quit. A person who is interested in quitting should speak to their primary care provider, or they can make an appointment directly with me,” Riederer said. “We can explore all the options and find the one that seems best for the individual.”

For more information about lung cancer screening or smoking cessation options at NUMC, talk to your primary care provider or call 507-217-5011.