A simple scan can save a life. Surviving lung cancer often depends on catching it early. But in its early stages, lung cancer usually has no signs.
Surviving lung cancer often depends on catching it early. But in its early stages, lung cancer usually has no signs. That’s why Medicare covers an annual lung cancer screening for people age 55 to 77 for people at high risk.
“We know there are hundreds of people in our area who need this screening but who aren’t aware that Medicare covers it or that it’s available so close to home,” said Lake Regional Radiologist Michael Vierra, M.D. “We want to reach those people with what could be lifesaving information.”
Getting the Word Out
Unfortunately, very few Americans at high risk for lung cancer get screened. According to a September 2017 Kansas City Star article, 9 million Americans fit Medicare’s criteria but only 230,000 of those covered — about 2.5 percent — have been screened.
“It’s a real problem,” Dr. Vierra said of the low screening rates. “Lung cancer causes more deaths in Missouri than any other cancer, and people are missing an opportunity to catch it when it’s most treatable.”
Locally, lung cancer was the second-most common cancer diagnosis at Lake Regional Cancer Center in 2016, with 52 patients diagnosed. (Breast cancer was No. 1 with 62 patients diagnosed.) Of these local lung cancer cases, 62 percent were diagnosed at Stage IV, when treatment is difficult and survival rates are low.
“If we could catch these cases at an earlier stage, we would see more people survive this cancer,” Dr. Vierra said.
Who Needs Screened
Screening — which looks for lung cancer in people without symptoms — has the power to find lung cancer early. Medicare covers a low-dose CT scan as a preventive service benefit for people who:
• are between 55 and 77 years old and
• are asymptomatic (have no signs or symptoms of lung cancer) and
• have a history of “heavy smoking” and
• currently smoke or have quit within the last 15 years and
• receive a physician’s order for lung cancer screening. The first order must be given at a visit focused on lung cancer screening counseling.
“Heavy smoking” means a smoking history of 30 pack years or more. A pack year is smoking an average of one pack of cigarettes per day for one year. For example, a person could have a 30 pack-year history by smoking one pack a day for 30 years or two packs a day for 15 years.
Lung cancer screening is recommended for people who are at high risk because these are the people most likely to receive benefit from the screening, which has its own risks. One of the biggest risks is that screening can suggest a person has lung cancer when no cancer is present. This is called a false-positive result.
“It’s a concern because false-positive results can lead to further tests,” Dr. Vierra said. “At some hospitals, the only follow-up tests available are invasive procedures. However, that’s not the case at Lake Regional. Our pulmonologist, Dr. Harjyot Sohal, offers endobronchial ultrasound, also called EBUS, for lung cancer diagnosis and staging. With EBUS, Dr. Sohal can view multiple areas of the lungs and collect precise samples without the risks of invasive surgery.”
Although it’s impossible to avoid all false-positive results, using state-of-the-art technology that provides incredibly detailed imaging helps minimize the number of people who need further testing. Such technology is available at Lake Regional Imaging Center, which last October installed a new low-dose CT scanner, the SOMATOM Perspective CT scanner from Siemens Medical Solutions.
“Our new 128-slice scanner captures exceptional detail, and it does so at a high scan speed,” Dr. Vierra said. “That means patients do not have to hold their breath as long, so we get better images and need fewer rescans.”
Those interested in receiving lung cancer screening should discuss the testing with their doctor. A physician’s order is required for the service.
“A simple lung scan can save a life,” Dr. Vierra said. “I encourage people to know their risk and take advantage of this service.”
Lake Regional Cancer Center offers a range of services to treat the whole person — not just the cancer. These services include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, nutrition therapy, palliative care, support groups, resource navigation and educational classes. Lake Regional Cancer Center treats many types of cancer, including bladder, breast, colon, lung, lymphoma and prostate cancers. To learn more, visit www.lakeregional.com/cancercare.