November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month. Having a month designated to this disease is important since lung cancer is not “popular” or promoted as other cancers are and knowledge about this cancer is lacking. Accounting for more than 25% of all cancer deaths, lung cancer kills 160,000 people every year. The death rate from lung cancer is greater than deaths attributed to colon, breast, pancreatic, and prostate cancers combined. Early detection is the cure. However, because of extreme difficulty in detecting at an early stage, nearly 90% of lung cancer patients die from this deadly disease. Therefore, fewer survivors are able to spread awareness about lung cancer.
Efforts are being made to change this extremely high mortality rate. For example, this past summer, a Preventive Services Task Force finally recommended annual CT scans to screen for lung cancer for patients at risk. This change is estimated to save 20,000 lives every year. Prior to the Task Force recommendations, little evidence supported screening for lung cancer besides the traditional annual chest x-ray. In 2010, the National Cancer Institute conducted a large scale clinical trial with 53,000 participants. The study found that smaller cancers could be detected by CT scans, thereby reducing the death rate by 20% in the highest risk group, which includes very heavy smokers.
Following the recommendations of the task force has the potential to change medical practice by making CT screening the standard of care for high risk smokers. Patients may not have to pay for the scans themselves as they would likely be covered by insurance and Medicare. Patients who would benefit from a CT screening are those between the ages of 55 and 80 years old who have a smoking habit of a pack a day for thirty years or more (even if they haven’t smoked for the past 15 years) and are medically able to undergo surgery if a cancer is found.
Obviously, the most effective way to reduce lung cancer is for smokers to stop smoking. The American Cancer Society marks the Great American Smokeout on the third Thursday of November each year by encouraging smokers to use the date to make a plan to quit or to plan in advance and stop smoking that day. By quitting — even for one day — smokers will be taking an important step towards a healthier life – one that can lead to reducing cancer risk.