Lung cancer accounts for about 27 percent of all cancer deaths each year. In fact, it is by far the leading cause of cancer death among both men and women.
The problem is that lung cancer has no symptoms when in its most treatable stage. For years, there was no way to effectively detect it early, when it is more treatable.
But in recent years, doctors have found a test that can be used to screen for lung cancer in people at high risk of the disease. Maureen Price was fortunate to learn about it shortly after quitting smoking several years ago. “I heard an ad about a new lung cancer screening for people who are high risk like me and decided to look into it,” she says.
“Individuals are considered high risk for lung cancer if they’re between 55 to 80 years old; have a 30 ‘pack year’ history of smoking; and are a current smoker, or a former smoker who has quit within the last 15 years,” explains Price’s oncologist, Mahsa Mohebtash, MD, director of the Cancer Center at MedStar Union Memorial Hospital and chief of medical oncology and hematology.
“Researchers studying a large population of high-risk individuals found that those who got a low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) scan had a 20 percent lower chance of dying from lung cancer than those who got chest X-rays because it is more effective in finding the disease early,” she says. “The procedure is painless and takes less than 10 minutes.”
Price started getting a LDCT scan every year. In her fourth year a suspicious nodule was found, but it was too small and inaccessible to be biopsied. Her doctors decided to wait a few months and do another scan, which showed the nodule had grown.
Surgery was scheduled to remove a small tumor. A biopsy revealed it was small cell lung cancer, a rare and rapidly growing type of the disease.
“The oncology team at MedStar Union Memorial was amazed to have found small cell lung cancer at such an early stage,” Price says. “I was told it is very unusual. I had another minor surgery to ensure that the cancer had not spread, then went through four cycles of chemotherapy with no side effects.”
“Lung cancer survival rates are five times higher when the cancer is detected in its earliest stages. If only half of the high-risk population were screened, more than 15,000 lives could be saved annually,” notes Dr. Mohebtash.
Price, now 62 years old, has had no recurrence after nearly seven years. She sees Dr. Mohebtash every year for follow-up imaging. On her first- year anniversary of being cancer free she got Chief, her Yorkshire terrier, as a gift to herself.
“I would not be here today if it hadn’t been for the LDCT scan, especially considering the type of lung cancer it was,” she says.
For more information about lung cancer, or to find out if you are eligible for the Lung Screening Program offered through MedStar Health Cancer Network, call 877-715-HOPE (4673). Screenings are also available for breast, cervical, and colorectal cancers.