When you think of lung cancer, what immediately comes to mind? For most, lung cancer is associated with smoking alone, and for good reason. Compared to nonsmokers, cigarette smokers are 15 to 30 times more likely to be diagnosed with or die from lung cancer.
But you might be shocked to learn that fewer than 10 percent of lifetime smokers get lung cancer, and 30,000 Americans who have never touched a cigarette get lung cancer every year, according to Mark Socinski, MD, Executive Medical Director of the Florida Hospital Cancer Institute.
So while smoking increases lung cancer risk, many non-smokers get lung cancer, too, and often for reasons unknown.
Once more, the effects of lung cancer are quite pervasive; it is “public enemy number one,” says Dr. Socinski.
Lung cancer is the second most common cancer among both men and women and is the leading cause of cancer death in both populations. Among women, almost twice as many die from lung cancer compared to breast cancer, Dr. Socinski explains.
And while other cancers may have more visibility or awareness, you may now see why lung cancer deserves much more of the spotlight.
Because with awareness comes knowledge, and knowledge comes power. Power to act. Power to overcome.
Overcoming lung cancer mortality rates with earlier detection
Compared to a mammogram’s ability to screen for early stages of breast cancer, a low-dose CT lung cancer screening can accurately detect early stages of lung cancer. And earlier detection means earlier treatments. And more cures.
“Studies have shown that low-dose CT lung cancer screenings can reduce lung cancer mortality [death] rates by 20 percent,” says Dr. Socinski. “Pushing early detection in high-risk populations is critical to find and treat the cancer before it advances in stage and spreads to other parts of the body.”
And, low-dose CT scans for lung cancer screenings are quite easy and accessible, especially within the Florida Hospital network. Dr. Socinski adds, “A low-dose CT scan is a fairly quick and painless imaging procedure that involves much less radiation compared to a diagnostic CT.”
So why doesn’t everyone get a low-dose CT lung cancer screening? Well, recommendations for these screenings boil down to a physician’s assessment of an individual’s lung cancer risk.
Current low-dose CT lung cancer screening guidelines
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force outlines distinct guidelines for low-dose CT lung cancer screenings based on two major variables: age and smoking history.
Annual screenings for lung cancer with low-dose CT are recommended in adults aged 55 to 80 years who have a 30 pack-year smoking history and currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years.
A ‘pack year’ is calculated by multiplying the number of packs of cigarettes smoked per day by the number of years the person has smoked. So, if you smoke one pack per day and you’ve smoked for 30 years, that would be a 30 pack-year smoking history.
However, Dr. Socinski explains that if you have a family history of lung cancer, or your occupation exposes you to known carcinogens such as asbestos, smoking history guidelines for low-dose CT screenings for lung cancer drop to 20 pack years.
Outside of these guidelines, Dr. Socinski notes that there is no conclusive evidence to show any benefit in screening populations beyond those described here.
How low-dose CT screenings for lung cancer can save lives
Part of the reason for lung cancer’s high mortality rate is that it is often diagnosed at later stages.
Dr. Socinski explains, “If patients feel a lump in the breast or pain, it generally alerts them to get medical care, but lung cancer can be silent in comparison.”
“While a cough might be an early sign, it can seem innocuous to many. Allergies, a cold or nasal drip: people tend to brush off these things as common ailments and delay getting medical attention, which can lead to a greater delay in diagnosis.”
“This is another important reason to push screening programs in high-risk populations. We can intervene before symptoms appear.”
And today, lung cancer treatments are advancing by leaps and bounds. “At the Florida Hospital Cancer Institute, we are at the forefront of lung cancer treatments and clinical research with a growing immunotherapy program that is highly effective in a qualifying minority of patients with lung cancer. We’re always pushing to explore and adopt new paradigms in treatment that offer more hope to our patients, notes Dr. Socinski.”
The bigger message
Detecting and curing lung cancer is a victory. But preventing it altogether is the greatest triumph of all.
Dr. Socinski points out, “Above all, smoking is not good for you. That said, every lung cancer screening program should be linked to a smoking cessation program.”
He concludes, “If you feel like you might be at risk for lung cancer, talk to your primary care physician about your risks and screening options; let him or her know that you are concerned and want to discuss this issue. Even if you are not a candidate for a lung cancer screening, maybe the conversation about your smoking cessation options will surface, and that’s a good step toward better health.”
Because the more we talk about lung cancer, the more everyone will see that we can take greater collective action to screen for (and even prevent) it.
Learn more information about the Florida Hospital Cancer Institute and Dr. Mark Socinski.