Lung Cancer Scans Will Save LivesRichmond Times Dispatch
December 13, 2011
By Linda Forem
More people die of lung cancer each year than breast, colon and prostate cancers combined. Of those newly diagnosed, 60 percent are currently not smokers — either they never smoked, or they have quit. And, most alarming, only 15 percent of those diagnosed with lung cancer today will survive five years.
The tide can turn, because there is now hope for early detection of lung cancer. That hope is a low-dose CT scan that has been proven to save lives by finding cancerous nodules in the lungs of high-risk patients at Stage I — when surgery is an option. Why should lung cancer be treated any differently than breast, colon or prostate cancers?
Thanks to early detection, five-year survival rates of breast cancer are now 89.1 percent, up from 75 percent.
Five-year survival rates for prostate cancer have risen to 99.7 percent from 67 percent, and five-year survival rates for colon cancer are now 65.2 percent, due to colonoscopies.
Lung cancer, though, is a death sentence most of the time. The reason: no early screening. Chest X-rays don't show the earliest stages. And you only get a chest X-ray if you have "symptoms." Many are diagnosed while being screened for something else.
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I never would have known these facts, nor would I have even investigated them, were it not for my sister Wendy.
In 2009, Wendy went to see an allergist, complaining of a constant tickle in her throat that provoked a cough. After a battery of tests, nothing was found. The allergist recommended a gastroenterologist, as perhaps it was acid reflux. She made an appointment, which took more time, and after testing, he also found nothing. By this time, she gave up.
She and her husband had a small child they had adopted from Guatemala — the dream child my sister always wanted. So my sister was busy with "life." And she didn't take the time to continue the pursuit of the "little tickle" in her throat.
A couple of months later, she was at her annual checkup with the gynecologist when he noticed that she had the same cough she had been complaining about the year before. He recommended she see his friend, a pulmonologist. After a CT scan and then a bronchoscopy, stage III non-small cell lung cancer was diagnosed.
There was a tumor in her lung, and her lymph nodes were also compromised. Lymph nodes around her heart were affected as well. Immediate chemotherapy and radiation followed for the next 11 months.
All of the most horrible side effects affected my sister. She also developed a chronic inflammatory form of pneumonia called pneumonitis, which is one of the dreaded possible results of having your lungs irradiated. This truly weakened her quickly, and her condition deteriorated. Wendy took her last breath only 11 months into her diagnosis.
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The new findings, which support improved preventative action for lung cancer, stem from the National Cancer Institute's eight-year, randomized, controlled trial.
The National Lung Screening Trial concluded in November 2010, when the director of the National Cancer Institute, Dr. Harold E. Varmus, announced that the trial was halted because 20 percent fewer deaths occurred among those screened with CT scans than those screened with chest X-rays. This translates into saving tens of thousands of people's lives.
In the trial, 53,000 people considered at risk for lung cancer were scanned yearly. When cancer was found, it was diagnosed at early stages — when surgery was a viable treatment — at rates that definitively proved how important it would be to expand scanning to a broader population.
Today, there are hospitals promoting the CT scan for high-risk people, but it is not covered by insurance as mammograms, colonoscopies and prostate tests are. That is the problem. And it must be remedied now.
To quote the Lung Cancer Alliance website:
"In 1971 President Richard Nixon officially declared the 'War on Cancer.' In the past four decades, many cancers have seen their five-year survival rates increase as a direct result of research, treatments, screening and diagnosis tools. In 1971 lung cancer had a five-year survival rate of only 13.2 percent. Forty years later, that five-year survival rate remains at 15 percent."
The Lung Cancer Alliance, (www.lungcanceralliance.org), Washington's only nonprofit organization dedicated solely to lung cancer, has communicated to key agencies that a review of lung cancer screening guidelines should begin immediately. This would mean that screening for lung cancer could be realized with minimum cost and risk. This must be accomplished in our lifetime.
This is a pivotal time in the history of lung cancer treatment, not unlike the time when mammograms were first being standardized as a uniform practice for breast cancer screening.
Send a letter today to your local representative, the National Institutes of Health, the United States Preventive Services Task Force, the governor, the president — to anyone who can have an impact.
Let's take a stand against lung cancer today. Tell your friends and family to tell their doctors they want to be screened. Perhaps those who smoke and get a clean scan will see this as a gift — and stop smoking.