Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the U.S., and yet many people aren't aware whether they are at risk or what to do if they suspect they could be at risk for lung cancer. In honor of Lung Cancer Awareness Month and in an effort to help more Americans learn about this disease, we asked Dr. Andrea McKee, a member of the American Lung Association's Lung Cancer Expert Medical Advisory Panel and chair of radiation oncology at Lahey Hospital and Medical Center, what everyone should know about lung cancer screening.
Who should be screened for lung cancer?
First, if you think you may be at risk, speak to your doctor. If you are unsure, use the American Lung Associations' online interactive tool lungcancerscreeningsaveslives.org to determine if lung cancer screening is recommended for you.
Patients identified as "high-risk" for developing lung cancer by the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) meet the following criteria:
55-80 years of age
Have a 30 pack-year history of smoking (this means 1 pack a day for 30 years, 2 packs a day for 15 years, etc.)
AND, are a current smoker, or have quit within the last 15 years
It's strongly encouraged that anyone considered high-risk speak to their doctor about lung cancer screening options. November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month and it's a great time to make that appointment if you haven't already.
In your experience, why is lung cancer screening important?
Each year, more women and men die of lung cancer than any other cancer, and half of all women diagnosed with lung cancer will lose their lives within a year. If lung cancer is caught before it spreads, the likelihood of survival triples. Screening is estimated to reduce lung cancer mortality by up to 20 percent. In fact, if only half of those at high risk were screened, more than 13,000 lung cancer deaths would be prevented. Screening and early detection has been proven to save lives.
Why is lung cancer screening only recommended for a certain group of people?
The National Cancer Institute conducted a thorough and careful study to determine if the above defined high-risk population would benefit from annual screening, and it has been deemed beneficial based on a careful analysis of the benefits measured next to the risks. For other individuals, such as those with fewer "pack years," (which are based on how much you smoked and for how long), or a high radon exposure history, evidence is currently lacking to prove that screening reduces mortality in a way that outweighs the potential risks (such as complications from follow-up procedures or exposure to radiation from additional diagnostic testing). Speak with your doctor if you have any questions or are unsure what group you fall into.
If I'm screened and diagnosed with lung cancer, what are my next steps?
If you are diagnosed with lung cancer, it's important that you become your own advocate. Research as much as you can from trusted resources and make sure to keep the lines of communication with your healthcare team open. Don't be afraid to speak up. Be sure to ask your doctor these Top 5 Questions and demand the answers you need to feel comfortable.
Early detection triples the chance of survival, so if you are at a high risk of lung cancer now is the time to schedule an appointment with your doctor to discuss screening.
How do I learn more about screening?
The American Lung Association has a variety of lung cancer screening resources for patients and healthcare professionals. Visit Lung.org/lcscreening or call the Lung Cancer HelpLine at 1-844-ALA-LUNG for more information. You can also speak with your physician.
What resources are available for lung cancer patients?
The American Lung Association is committed to supporting those affected by this disease and has established several opportunities for support and education on lung cancer. We offer support for lung cancer patients and their caregivers, from patient resources and videos, a Lung Cancer Action Guide and Lung Cancer HelpLine at 1-844-ALA-LUNG to a lung cancer survivors community and opportunities to help raise awareness about lung cancer through the LUNG FORCE initiative.