One of the most commonly diagnosed cancers in the United States — lung cancer — is also the deadliest. According to the American Lung Association, the five-year survival rate is only 16.3 percent and more than half of people diagnosed will die within one year.
Detecting lung cancer remains a challenge for healthcare providers because patients rarely present symptoms until they are stage III or IV.
“We can’t cure patients at stage IV lung cancer and we rarely cure patients when they’re diagnosed at stage III,” says Jonathan Bender, M.D., a medical oncologist at Piedmont. “Unlike other cancers, lung cancer can spread throughout your body without you knowing it. It doesn’t typically cause pain or respiratory symptoms until very late in the diagnosis.”
Dr. Bender calls smoking-related lung cancer a healthcare “crisis.”
“Unfortunately, it is tied to a very preventable cause, which is smoking in more than 90 percent of cases,” he says.
The importance of early detection
“The best way to make a huge impact in curing lung cancer is to diagnose it early,” he says. “We know that the patient or people in the community who are at the highest risk for lung cancer are smokers, especially older smokers who have a long history of smoking cigarettes.”
In hopes of making the crucial early diagnosis, Piedmont oncologists are providing CT screenings to patients who have a referral and are at the highest risk for developing lung cancer — typically those ages 55 to 74 who have smoked at least a pack a day for more than 30 years.
“By diagnosing lung cancer at stage I, we can have an enormous impact in curing that patient by having surgery early,” he says. “People who have smoked 10 cigarettes, half a pack, or have smoked for 10 years don’t have a high enough risk to benefit from lung cancer screening with the CAT scanner.”
As is the case for most cancers, early detection improves a patient’s chances of survival. Some of the cancers that have the best survival rates also have the best screening methods. For example, breast cancer can be detected through a mammogram, cervical cancer can be picked up on a routine Pap smear and colon cancer can be found through a colonoscopy.
Experts are still trying to determine the best way to screen patients for lung cancer.
“Chest X-ray studies have been done for several years and unfortunately, they never showed any improvement in survival,” explains Dr. Bender.
For those patients at high risk of lung cancer, rapid, vast CT scan technology can mean the difference between life and death. “Diagnosing the disease at stage I or II when we can intervene can make a difference,” he says.
Learn more about cancer prevention and screening.