Lung cancer is the number one cancer killer in the United States. It is expected to cause approximately 157,000 deaths in 2011, representing 28% of all cancer deaths. Lung cancer has long been rightfully considered a relatively easy-to-prevent cancer, by not smoking or breathing secondhand smoke, but impossible to detect early with lifesaving benefit. While the early detection of colon, breast, skin cancers and others has paid big dividends in lower mortality rates in recent decades, not so with lung cancer. Previous attempts to develop a test to find lung cancer early, when it is easier to treat, have not been successful. But this may be changing as we look to the near future.
Earlier this week an educational program entitled “Out of the Shadows: Lung Cancer and Screening” was sponsored jointly by the Lung Cancer Alliance and Legacy. The expert panelists made the case that National Cancer Institute’s Lung Cancer Screening Trial, launched in 2002, has demonstrated that tens of thousands of lives can be saved annually if this screening becomes a U.S. health care priority. Specifically, Spiral CT scans, also known as low-dose helical computed tomography, have been shown to decrease lung cancer mortality in current and former heavy smokers.
Cheryl Healton, President and CEO of Legacy, called CT screening the single most important cancer control advance in her lifetime. James Mulshine, MD, another panelist, stated that it is a public health opportunity that won’t be seen again for a long time. There are over 94 million current and former smokers in the United States who are at high risk for lung cancer. Now, with the Spiral CT, an early detection screening procedure exists that could save many of their lives.
It should be added that never starting to smoke, or quitting if you already do, will continue to be the top priorities in saving lives from tobacco. But now, it appears, early detection will be a tool as well.