Are you a candidate for lung cancer screening? Exploring the life-saving power of early detection

October 31, 2023

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Are you a candidate for lung cancer screening? Exploring the Life-Saving Power of Early Detection

You may be familiar with mammogram screenings for breast cancer, and colonoscopies to detect colon cancer, but did you know that there is also a screening for lung cancer? As with all cancers, the earlier lung cancer is detected, the easier it is to treat. But because symptoms don’t often occur in the early stages of lung cancer, diagnosis is frequently delayed. That’s why screening is crucial, especially for older adults who have smoked heavily.

Who Should Be Screened for Lung Cancer

Those eligible for lung cancer screening:

  • Are between ages 50 and 80
  • Currently smoke or quit smoking less than 15 years ago
  • Have smoked an average of half a pack per day for 40 years, one pack per day for 20 years, 2 packs per day for 10 years, or more

If you meet all the criteria above, or if you currently smoke and have other risk factors for lung cancer, you should talk to your primary care provider about an annual low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) scan.

What is an LDCT?

A low-dose CT scan is a quick, painless imaging test that is performed once a year for individuals who have no symptoms of lung cancer but are at high risk because of their smoking history and age. During this non-invasive test, the patient simply lies comfortably while a machine scans the chest using a small amount of radiation to create detailed images of the lungs. It only takes a few minutes, but this simple test saves lives.

Why Are LDCTs Highly Recommended?

Lung cancer symptoms, such as weight loss, loss of appetite, fatigue, cough (sometimes producing blood) and shortness of breath, are notoriously absent until the disease progresses to more advanced stages. Because people with early-stage lung cancer often do not experience any symptoms at all, LDCT screening greatly increases early detection and reduces deaths due to lung cancer.

The impact of early detection on lung cancer outcomes is staggering, actually. “If we find lung cancer in the early stages, the prognosis is very good,” says Som Chalise, MD, FCCP, director of pulmonary medicine for Riverside Health System. “The five-year survival rate for stage-one lung cancer is more than 90%, compared to 10% at stage four.”

When a Lung Nodule is Detected

When reviewing your LDCT scan, the radiologist is looking for something called a nodule, which is a small, abnormal area that is more dense than normal lung tissue. If a lung nodule is seen on your LDCT, don’t panic. More than 90% of nodules are benign.

However, prompt evaluation by an expert in pulmonary medicine is needed to be sure that anything potentially cancerous is identified and treated as soon as possible. That’s where Riverside’s Lung Nodule Clinic comes in.

Streamlined Evaluation, Diagnosis and Treatment

Established in 2022, the Lung Nodule Clinic enables Riverside’s team of board-certified pulmonologists to prioritize suspicious LDCT findings, expediting evaluation, diagnosis and treatment when indicated. This is accomplished through designating time in each physician’s schedule, at locations across the region, specifically for this purpose.

“Each referral from radiology to the Lung Nodule Clinic is always marked as urgent, and our goal is that a pulmonary physician will see the patient within seven days,” Dr. Chalise says. “We promptly evaluate them, assess them and give the right recommendation for the patients and their families. That relieves their anxiety.”

Sometimes, doctors determine that a nodule or nodules can be monitored closely with additional CT scans. Other times, a biopsy should be performed right away. Depending on the location of the nodule, biopsies are either performed by a radiologist who collects a tissue sample via a CT-guided needle through the skin, or by a pulmonologist using advanced bronchoscopy technology, which accesses the lung via airway passages. Riverside’s pulmonary medicine team has the capability to utilize the most recent technology, including robotic bronchoscopy, which uses a navigational system to guide instruments in collecting samples.

Specialized Care for Lung Cancer

When lung cancer is diagnosed, Riverside’s comprehensive, advanced range of services makes it possible for patients to be treated effectively, quickly and seamlessly within the health system and close to home. Riverside has dedicated Oncology Nurse Navigators that specialize in lung cancer, supporting patients each step of the way.

“Riverside Health System has all necessary teams to take care of lung cancer, from detection to management.” Dr. Chalise says. “We have thoracic surgeons who can perform curative surgery, radiation oncologists who provide high-dose radiation treatment, including stereotactic body radiation treatment (SBRT) and surface-guided radiation therapy (SGRT), and medical oncologists to provide chemotherapy and newer immunotherapies. For patients at more advanced stages, our palliative care department helps manage symptoms and supports patient goals.”

Lung Cancer in Non-Smokers

Although 80 to 90 percent of lung cancers are due to smoking, the remaining percentage are associated with other risk factors, including exposure to secondhand smoke, radon or asbestos, as well as a family history of lung cancer, a personal history of any cancer or previous radiation therapy to the chest.

If you have any of these risk factors, or symptoms that concern you, be sure to discuss them with your doctor as soon as possible.

Screening and Rapid Follow-Up: Powerful Tools in Early Detection

The use of LDCT screening combined with the prompt, attentive evaluation of results by Riverside pulmonologists is making a clear impact on the early detection of lung cancer in our community. “Since implementing the Lung Nodule Clinic at Riverside, we have detected more early-stage lung cancer than before,” Dr. Chalise says. For these patients and their families, this means a drastically better prognosis and a world of difference.

Your health is too important to delay. Reach out to your primary care provider to start a conversation about lung cancer screening.

Primary care is foundational in the early detection process. If you are a longtime smoker, your primary care provider (PCP) can evaluate your risk factors for lung cancer, confirm that you qualify for screening and order an LDCT. The result will either be peace of mind or early detection — schedule an appointment with your PCP today.

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