Low-dose CT screening
Lung cancer accounts for 27 percent of all cancer deaths. In 2016, 158,080 Americans died from the disease – more than from prostate, breast and colorectal cancer combined. Sadly, it also has the lowest five-year survival rate: 18 percent, compared with prostate (99 percent), breast (90 percent) and colorectal (65 percent).
There are two ways to diagnose lung cancer, explains Dr. Peter Mazzone, director of the Lung Cancer Screening Program at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, and the choice depends on whether someone is showing symptoms. Early signs of the disease, including a cough that doesn’t go away, shortness of breath and unexplained weight loss, will prompt a physician to perform a CT scan and/or biopsy. Often by the time patients have symptoms, they’re at an advanced stage, and their chances for survival are slim.
But there’s another tool that’s considered the standard of care for at-risk lung cancer patients, much as mammography and colonoscopy are routine to diagnose breast and colorectal cancer. The low-dose CT screening for lung cancer is specifically for people who are showing no symptoms but who have at least two risk factors. Because it can catch cancerous lesions at a very early – and very treatable – stage, this 10-second test can literally be a lifesaver.
Smokers, people who’ve smoked within the past 15 years, those who smoked more than “30 pack years” (i.e., a pack a day for 30 years or two a day for 15 years) who are 55 to 77 or 80 yet present no symptoms qualify for this test, which is covered by Medicare and most insurance carriers.
The scan takes less than one minute, but beforehand, the patient is required to have a “shared-decision-making” consultation with his doctor. There are some potential risks and downsides, such as the inherent risks from additional tests that might be indicated, but the life-saving and -extending potential generally far outweighs them.