Smokeout 2021: What Current, Former Smokers Need to Know About Lung Cancer Screenings

The rates of cigarette smoking have substantially declined over the past several decades — from 42 percent in 1965 to 14 percent in 2019, but the COVID-19 pandemic has had a concerning impact on access to tobacco products. For the first time in two decades, cigarette sales increased last year during the pandemic, as tobacco companies also boosted spending to promote their products.

The Federal Trade Commission, in its annual Cigarette Report, said that manufacturers sold 203.7 billion cigarettes in 2020, up from 202.9 billion in 2019 — an increase of 0.4 percent. That may be a fractional increase but it is troubling, nonetheless. Studies have indicated that smokers are more susceptible to COVID-19 infection and severe illness from the coronavirus.

Mark Dylewski, M.D., chief of general thoracic surgery at Baptist Health’s Miami Cancer Institute.

About 34 million American adults still smoke cigarettes, and smoking remains the single largest preventable cause of death and illness in the world — responsible for about 80 percent of lung cancer cases, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).

“Lung cancer develops in patients as a result of the 6,000 to 7,000 co-carcinogens and carcinogens that are released from the tobacco leaf,” explains Mark Dylewski, M.D., chief of general thoracic surgery at Baptist Health’s Miami Cancer Institute.

Today marks the Great American Smokeout 2021, an annual campaign sponsored by the ACS. It is held on the third Thursday of November and usually features community events across the nation that encourage Americans to quit tobacco smoking.

“This is a good time to remind anyone who smokes that quitting now can start lowering their risk of cancer and other chronic diseases,” explains John R. Roberts, M.D., thoracic surgeon at Lynn Cancer Institute. “They should not hesitate to consult with their doctor if they have any questions about screenings or any other health concern. But when it comes to the risk of lung cancer, waiting to quit is not a good option.”

John R. Roberts, M.D., thoracic surgeon at Lynn Cancer Institute.

Adding to public health concerns over recent years has been the popularity of e-cigarettes or vaping devices. These e-cigs can increase the potency of nicotine, one of the most addictive chemicals, delivered to the lungs of the user. The possible link between vaping products and cancer has yet to be established because e-cigarettes have been on the market for just a few years.

“One of the most important issues nowadays is the use of vape pens,” said Dr. Dylewski. “These vape pens produce more nicotine per puff than a routine combustible cigarette. Our young folks are thinking that these vape pens are safer, less addictive, and it’s absolutely untrue.”

Screening Tests for Smokers, Ex-Smokers

The only recommended screening test for lung cancer is low-dose computer tomography (also called a low-dose CT scan, or LDCT). Such a test involves an X-ray machine that scans the body and uses low doses of radiation to make detailed pictures of the lungs.

“Historically, the majority of patients that were diagnosed with lung cancer in the U.S. were at Stage Three and Four,” said Dr. Dylewski. “That used to be about 60 to 70 percent of patients, and that is changing with the implementation of screening with CT scans. And we’re catching more and more patients in the earlier stages — Stage One and Stage Two — where surgery can have an impact at curing those patients.”

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommended cancer screening with LDCT for people who—

  • Have a 20-year history of heavy smoking (average of one pack of cigarettes per day), and
  • Smoke now or have quit within the past 15 years, and
  • Are between 55 and 80 years old.

How Quitting Smoking Improves Your Health

The benefits of quitting smoking are almost immediate and increases over time. It’s never too late to quit using tobacco, according to the ACS and the CDC. The sooner you quit, the more you can reduce your chances of getting cancer and other diseases.

How does the average smoker’s body recover over time after quitting? The American Cancer Society says that after…

20 minutes:
Your heart rate and blood pressure start to drop.

12 hours:
The carbon monoxide level in your blood drops to normal.

2 weeks to 3 months:
Your circulation improves, while your lung function increases.

1 to 9 months:
Coughing and shortness of breath decrease. Your lungs start to regain normal functionality, increasing their ability to fight infection.

1 year:
The excess risk of coronary heart disease is half that of a continuing smoker’s.

5 years:
Risk of cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus and bladder are cut in half. Cervical cancer risk falls to that of a non-smoker. Stroke risk can fall to that of a non-smoker after 2 to 5 years.

10 years:
The risk of dying from lung cancer is about half that of a person who is still smoking. The risk of cancer of the larynx (voice box) and pancreas decreases.

15 years:
The risk of coronary heart disease is that of a non-smoker’s.

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With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 12 hospitals, more than 27,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 200 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.

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