Lung cancer carries a stigma that most other cancers don’t. The thinking goes: You smoked, you got it, that’s your problem — maybe you even had it coming to you.
There are problems with that logic, of course, even though smokers and former smokers are in the majority of the 180,000 global lung cancer deaths per year.
First, some 20% of lung cancer patients never smoked, and 60% are former smokers. There are also hereditary and environmental factors that lead to lung cancer.
Second, many who smoked did the difficult work of quitting smoking, only to be diagnosed with lung cancer years later.
Third, for smokers or former smokers, the potential stigma of a lung cancer diagnosis might keep them from getting screened for lung cancer. Since early detection could save their lives, and we now have outstanding screening tools for early detection, this is easily the most tragic result of lung cancer stigma.
Screening with Low-Dose CT Scans
“As a surgeon, I have the opportunity to operate on people with early-stage lung cancer, and most of them are cured of their disease,” said Mark Block, MD, Chief, Division of Thoracic Surgery Program, Memorial Healthcare System.
“So, the challenge becomes, how do we detect lung cancer early?”
Short answer: technology.
“Over the last 10-15 years we’ve refined the technology to detect lung cancer early,” said Dr. Block. “Low-dose chest CT (computer tomography) is a special kind of x-ray that creates a detailed 3-D image of the lungs with the radiation exposure of a mammogram.”
This technology allows doctors to detect very small nodules, or growths, in the lungs that previously were undetectable, leading to earlier diagnosis and better lung cancer survivorship.
Who Should Get Screened, and Why?
The question of “why get screened” for lung cancer is very straightforward.
“It really saves lives in a dramatic fashion, about a 20% reduction,” said Dr. Block. “That's huge in the field of cancer — reducing death from cancer by 20% is an unheard-of experience,” he concluded.
So, who should get screened for lung cancer? Keep in mind that most people diagnosed with lung cancer have no obvious symptoms. That said, you can talk to your doctor about it, especially if you have a family history of lung cancer.
At Memorial Healthcare System, screenings are recommended for people who:
Are 50 to 80 years old and in fairly good health,
Currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years,
Have a 20 pack-year or more smoking history.*
*A pack-year is smoking an average of one pack of cigarettes per day for one year. For example, a person could have a 20 pack-year history by smoking one pack a day for 20 years or two packs a day for 10 years. While lung cancer is the most common cause of cancer deaths worldwide, it is both preventable and treatable if detected early.
Obviously, you shouldn’t smoke. But since many lung cancer patients never smoked, you should talk to your doctor as soon as possible about whether lung cancer screening is right for you.
Taking these simple steps should help you breathe a little easier, and just might save your life.