By David Koh, MD
It‘s been known since 1950 that there is a direct link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. From that time forward, people have been trying to quit smoking. In fact, in 1965, 42 percent of Americans smoked. As of 2012, that percentage has dropped to 18.1.
Despite this encouraging decline, lung cancer remains the leading cause of cancer deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, tobacco use accounts for over one-third of the preventable deaths in the United States. That comes out to 399,000 deaths a year attributed to smoking alone. Every eight seconds, someone dies from tobacco use. So in the time it probably took you to read this article, almost 16 people have died. On average, male smokers lose 13.2 years and females lose 14.5 years of life expectancy due to tobacco use.
Because some people feel lung cancer is a self-inflicted disease, fighting it doesn’t always grab the attention or support from the public. More attention is given to breast, prostate, and colon cancers. Indeed, there are far more cases of these cancers in the U.S. than lung cancer. However, if the death rates from breast, prostate, and colon cancer are combined, it still does not equal how many people die from lung cancer. Illinois accounts for the seventh highest lung cancer rate in the country. When looking at death rates from lung cancer, nationally, it is about 49.5 per 100,000 people. In Illinois, it is 51.8/100,000. Here in McLean County, it’s 52.9/100,000 — higher than both the national and state average.
Why do so many people die of lung cancer? By the time it is discovered, it’s usually too late to remove it and cure the person of cancer because it has already spread. The key is early detection, which accounts for the higher survival rates for breast, prostate, and colon cancers. Historically, early detection of lung cancer has been a challenge.
But modern technology is changing this. Some hospitals now can perform low-dose radiation CT scans of the chest with sophisticated software that can detect lung cancers very early. Studies using this new screening protocol showed that 90 percent of cases of confirmed lung cancer discovered during the screening process were in stage one. At this stage, most lung cancers can be resected and cured.
So who should be screened? The scan is designed for high-risk adults who meet all of the following criteria:
- You are a current or former smoker, age 55-74.
- You have a smoking history of at least 30 “pack years” (you arrive at this number by multiplying the number of packs of cigarettes smoked per day with how many years you smoked).
- You have smoked in the last 15 years.
- You have no history of lung cancer, or current signs and symptoms of lung cancer (coughing up blood, unexplained cough, weight loss, or chest pain).
Although the scan is not currently covered by insurance, the cost to the patient is commonly less than $100.
Of course, the best way to avoid lung cancer is to lead a lifestyle that greatly reduces your risk. Don’t smoke — or stop smoking if you currently do. Avoid the presence of secondhand smoke. Get your home tested for radon, another established cause of lung cancer. Take the proper precautions at work, if your job brings you in contact with known carcinogens, such as asbestos.
Help for quitting smoking is available at www.smokefree.gov, or by calling 1-800-QUIT-NOW. You can also text QUIT to 47848 from your cellphone. Your employer may also offer smoking cessation assistance.
David Koh, MD, is a pulmonologist with Advocate Medical Group-Pulmonology in Normal and Pontiac. Advocate BroMenn Medical Center in Normal offers CT lung cancer screenings for individuals who meet the criteria listed in this article. For more information, call 309-268-LUNG (5864).
Photo credit: rustycloud/iStock