by Tami S. Scott
For Edna Case of Fulton, a smoker for nearly 40 years, taking advantage of a deeply-discounted lung cancer screening program was a no-brainer.
Case, who works for University Radiology Associates in Syracuse, learned about the program designed for long-time smokers, through her supervisor. Offered by Upstate Medical University and launched in September, it is the first comprehensive lung cancer screening program in Central New York.
For those eligible to participate, it includes a low-dose CT scan to rule out early stages of lung cancer, along with a personalized follow-up Phone call to the person who gets screened and his or her primary care physician.
A referral will be made if anything abnormal is discovered, as well as more follow-up if necessary. Additionally, eligible participants may participate in a smoking cessation program as well as personal smoking cessation counseling.
“I knew right along that smoking wasn’t good so when I heard about the screening, I wanted to have the test to know where, at 63 years old, I was physically,” said Case, whose family has had a history of cancers: her aunt had a lung removed due to lung cancer, her uncle was diagnosed with stomach cancer and her mother was treated for cancer of the esophagus.
“I was a little nervous but quickly found there was absolutely nothing to be afraid [of],” Case added. “The test itself is a breeze — you lay down in the machine and in less than 10 minutes the scans are complete…I would recommend the scan to anyone who has abused their body like I did.”
November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month. To mark this occasion, Upstate Medical University, along with more than 100 locations across 40 states as well as in Australia, Brazil and Egypt, participated in the fourth annual national vigil on Nov. 13. The event was held at the hospital where survivors as well as families and friends of victims of lung cancer gathered.
According to Dr. Leslie Kohman, medical director of the Upstate Cancer Center, lung cancer kills more women and men than breast, prostate and colorectal cancers combined.
The five-year survival rate for lung cancer is only 16 percent, compared to 90 percent for breast and 99 percent for prostate.
“We really have to pay attention to this major killer,” Kohman said. “We see the success of the huge emphasis every October on breast cancer and the success of turning this into a survivable disease. The same attention needs to be paid to lung cancer, which is actually a much more fatal cancer.”
There are many misconceptions about lung cancer among the general public, one of them being that only smokers will get it. The reality is that nearly 70 percent of new lung cancers occur in former smokers or people who have never smoked, said Kohman, blaming second-hand smoke as the primary factor contributing to the latter.
Another misunderstanding — perhaps the most damaging — is that it’s the person’s fault; that They brought it on themselves or deserved to get lung cancer.
“Most people who smoke have done so through addiction introduced by intensive, skillful marketing,” Kohman said. “It’s nobody’s fault that they get lung cancer, and we ought to do everything we can to prevent it and to help discover cures for the patients who are unfortunate enough to get lung cancer.” Case, who began smoking at age 18, said she attempted to quit many times. She was finally successful five years ago.
A third misconception Kohman noted was that lung cancer is not curable. “Although the majority of patients who are diagnosed with lung cancer will die of it, there is a significant segment of people who will be cured, so it’s not a death sentence in all cases by any means,” Kohman said.
New evidence from a large trial involving 50,000 people in the United States showed that low-dose CT scans can detect early lung cancers before they cause symptoms and when they are still mostly curable.
Symptoms of advanced lung cancer include cough, shortness of breath, weight loss, fatigue, coughing up blood, pain and occasionally lumps. “Early lung cancer has no symptoms just like early cancer of all other kinds,” Kohman said.
Federal funding for all cancers has dropped over the last eight years, however, money committed for lung cancer research has always been a significant percentage less than for breast or prostate. Only $1,362 annually in research dollars per death is federally allocated compared to $28,543 per death for breast cancer and $12,580 per death for prostate cancer. “These dollars have made a difference in survival for breast and prostate cancer,” Kohman said. “Now we need to match that effort for lung cancer.”
Case said that though the result of her CT scan caused her to have other follow up tests – all which ultimately turned out normal – she was still very glad to have had the screening done for peace of mind. “Quitting or never starting [to smoke] is the best, but if neither happened then I highly recommend the CT scan,” Case said. “The sooner the cancer is discovered the better chance the person has for treatment.”
To learn more about Upstate Medical University’s lung cancer screening program and eligibility requirements, call 315-464-8668.