Lung cancer is the No. 1 cause of cancer death in the United States each year. This year alone, there will be more than 220,000 diagnoses and over 155,000 deaths in the U.S. Currently, the five-year survival rate for all diagnosed lung cancers is 18 percent. The good news is the diagnoses have decreased recently as smoking rates fell. In fact, since 1990, the rate of lung cancer deaths has diminished 43 perfect for men.
Lung cancer, historically, has been diagnosed when the disease is advanced. The survival rates are poorer in advanced stages. However, when it is found and treated in the early stages, the survival rate improves significantly. Unfortunately, it is often diagnosed late due to symptoms that can be easily attributed to other causes. Fatigue, cough, hoarse voice and shortness of breath may be part of a smoker’s usual day. If a person has quit smoking, these symptoms could be explained by aging, lack of regular exercise or previous smoking history.
Until recently, a specific screening — such as a mammogram, colonoscopy or Pap smear — did not exist for lung cancer. However, that has changed due to an extensive study completed about six years ago.
The National Lung Screening Trial compared two ways of detecting the cancer: standard chest X-ray or low-dose helical computed tomography (CT) scans. Over nine years, the trial enrolled more than 50,000 people who had a heavy smoking history and/or still smoked and randomly assigned one of the two screening options. The study showed that low-dose CT scan was a more effective diagnostic tool. Through the low-dose CT scan, which creates an image of the lung in small slices, radiologists could view, in tiny detail, abnormalities in the lungs.
Now, low-dose CT lung cancer screening scans are standard and covered by insurance. The cancer screen is recommended for people age 55 to 77 who currently smoke OR have quit smoking within the past 15 years AND have a 30-pack year or more smoking history. To calculate your smoking pack year history, visit smokingpackyears.com.