Why is lung cancer still such a deadly disease? First, let’s start with reviewing the facts. Lung cancer is the third most common cancer and the number one cancer killer with 90% of patients diagnosed succumbing to their disease. The five-year survival rate for all patients with lung cancer is 17 percent, a statistic that has not changed significantly in decades. According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer kills more Americans every year than the next three most common cancers (breast, colon and prostate) combined.
The two most important risk factors for lung cancer are tobacco use (smoking) and age. People who smoke cigarettes are 15 to 30 times more likely to get lung cancer or die from lung cancer than people who do not smoke. In fact, over 85% of patients diagnosed with lung cancer have smoked. Unfortunately, in the United States, 37% of adults are current or former smokers. Regarding age as a factor, the majority of lung cancers are diagnosed in people over the age of 55.
How do we advance from these statistics? Better early detection is the key. Recently, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force made recommendations on using low dose CT scans to screen for lung cancer. Results of this study show that a certain population can greatly benefit from the low dose CT scan. It suggested screening be offered to people between the ages of 55 and 80 who are active smokers or who have smoked within the past 15 years. Once individuals have stopped smoking for over 15 years, the low dose CT scan is not recommended for use. It also advised that the screening should be done yearly on people who have a 30 pack year history. (A 30 pack history means that this person has smoked 1 pack a day for 30 years, or 2 packs a day for 15 years, and so on.) The hope is that this screening will detect more early stage cancers and decrease deaths from lung cancer. Thanks to these high-level recommendations from the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force, this type of lung cancer screening is also approved for coverage by Medicare.
However, it must be said, the option of lung cancer screenings is not a substitute for the need of smokers to quit smoking now. Quitting smoking at any age can greatly reduce the risk of developing lung cancer.
For more information and to read the full report from the U.S. Preventative Service Tasks Force, visit the website www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org. Also, please discuss with your doctor to see if this type of screening is an option.