Research

CT Screenings for Lung Cancer are Saving More Lives

Despite decades of steady progress in getting more people to quit smoking, lung cancer remains the leading cause of cancer death and the second most diagnosed cancer in both men and women in the United States.

Each year, more people die of lung cancer than of colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined. However, lung cancer rates are on the decline nationally as fewer people smoke cigarettes. Smoking cigarettes or other tobacco products is, by far, the number one cause of lung cancer, linked to about 90 percent of cases, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month and Nov. 19 marks the “Great American Smokeout,” launched by the American Cancer Society in 1976 to encourage smokers to quit (at least) for a day.

Even if you’ve smoked for decades, quitting as soon as possible can save your life, says Juan Carlos Batlle, M.D., chief of thoracic imaging at Baptist Health South Florida. Ten years after quitting, the risk of dying from lung cancer is about half that of a person who is still smoking.

“If you haven’t smoked for 15 years, your risk of lung cancer is fairly close to that of a non-smoker,” says Dr. Battle, whose team screens thousands of patients a year, many of them ex-smokers who qualify for a low-dose CT lung cancer screening — a procedure recently made more widely available and one that is already saving more lives.

Low-dose CT Lung Cancer Screenings

Last year, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) approved annual low-dose CT lung cancer screenings for adults ages 55 through 80 who have a “30 pack-year” history of smoking (described as a pack a day for 30 years; two packs a day for 15 years, and so on), or who have quit smoking in the past 15 years. That means that most health insurers are covering these screenings at little to no cost for ex-smokers who qualify.

The U.S. Task Force’s approval has amounted to a milestone in the prevention and treatment of lung cancer, Dr. Batlle says.

“Decades of data on the screening of smokers with yearly chest x-rays found that these images are not nearly as sensitive as CT scans in finding growths that can be potentially cancerous,” Dr. Batlle said. “Compared to chest x-rays, CT scans have reduced mortality by 20 percent. That means one in five more people are living because they were screened with CT scans and their cancers were caught early and treated.”

It is estimated that in 2015, the U.S. will see 221,000 new lung case cases diagnosed by year’s end. In 2012, the most recent year for which the CDC has tracked lung cancer, 210,828 people in the United States were diagnosed with the disease, including 111,395 men and 99,433 women. In that same year, 157,423 people in the United States died from lung cancer, including 86,689 men and 70,734 women.

The figures are striking, especially considering that the CDC reported in September that the U.S. smoking rate has declined to just over 15 percent of adults, the lowest mark on record. In 1962, the smoking rate was 42 percent among Americans.

But with low-dose CT lung screenings becoming more accessible to ex-smokers, it is expected that the number of lung cancer survivors will increase annually by 20 percent.

“These CT lung screenings are being very well received by former smokers who see the common-sense nature of the procedure,” Dr. Batlle said. “But even now we must make sure that the word gets out and more people understand the risk associated with not getting a screening.”

Healthcare that Cares

With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 13 hospitals, more than 23,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 100 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.