In sports, most coaches agree you need a good game plan to defeat a tough opponent. Similarly, medical experts say executing the right strategy in the treatment of cancer is crucial.
When it comes to treating cancer, lung cancer is a formidable opponent. According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer is the second-most common cancer in the United States, with nearly 237,000 estimated new cases diagnosed this year, and the leading cause of cancer death among Americans.
But there’s good news to report. According to a recent report published by the American Lung Association, the five-year lung cancer survival rate has recently improved to 25% nationally — an increase of 21% from 2014 to 2018. That’s a significant “win” against a disease estimated to claim the lives of more than 130,000 Americans in 2022.
But there’s still a lot of room for improvement, particularly in the number of people being screened for lung cancer. Unfortunately, only about 5.8% of the eligible population were screened in 2021, according to the report.
Subrato Deb, MD, FACS, chief thoracic surgeon at Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center, said screening is an important step toward improving the overall survival rate of lung cancer patients because it can detect tumors at the early stages when the cancer is more curable. The association’s report highlights that lung cancer screening with annual low-dose CT scans for those at risk can reduce the lung cancer death rate by up to 20%.
Dr. Deb is quick to point out, however, that screening is only one part of the playbook to treat lung cancer. He said that prevention, proper diagnosis and treatment are equally important parts of the game plan, adding that fewer people smoking and advances in treatment have contributed to recently improved outcomes.
Prevention (defense wins championships)
Dr. Deb says living a “lung-healthy lifestyle” is critical in reducing your risk for lung cancer. Number one on that list is not smoking.
Although anyone can get lung cancer, tobacco use is the leading risk factor, accounting for 80 to 90% of cases, according to the association’s report. Dr. Deb said smoking cessation counseling has the biggest impact on reducing risk.
In addition to not smoking, there are other steps you can take:
- Avoid secondhand smoke.
- Get your home tested for radon.
- Use protective equipment when exposed to dangerous substances and pollutants. Exposure to radon, asbestos, radiation, arsenic and pollution increases your risk.
Screening (scouting the opposition)
Lung cancer is such a difficult opponent because the symptoms usually don’t appear until the disease is at an advanced stage and has spread to other parts of the body. This makes it much more difficult to treat and this is why early detection is crucial.
MD Anderson recommends annual screening for lung cancer with a low-dose CT scan for adults who:
- Are between 50 and 80 years old,
- Have a 20-pack-year history of smoking or more (this means the equivalent of a pack a day for 20 years), and
- Currently smoke or have quit within the last 15 years.
A low-dose CT scan, which is available at Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center, provides a more detailed image of the lungs (versus a chest X-ray) with reduced radiation exposure. They are covered by Medicare and many insurance plans for people who meet the criteria.
Diagnosis and treatment (calling the right play)
If you have lung cancer, receiving the appropriate diagnosis and treatment is vital. Dr. Deb recommended going to a dedicated accredited cancer center, like Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center. He said treatment options for early-stage cancers continue to evolve as facilities specializing in cancer have access to the latest technologies.
For instance, recent research has shown that surgery removing only the amount of lung needed to treat the tumor is as effective as taking a larger portion of the lung tissue out, Dr. Deb said. This can result in a better quality of life for patients, with fewer effects on breathing after their procedure.
“This is monumental. Advances in treatments like less invasive surgery, either thoracoscopic or robotic have made a difference in lung cancer outcomes,” he said. “At Baptist MD Anderson Cancer Center, we routinely perform these surgeries and are among the few facilities in the area that offer this complex technique to patients with early-stage lung cancer.”
To learn more about lung cancer prevention and screening, and to request an appointment with a Baptist Health primary care physician, please visit baptistjax.com/lungscreening.