Spotlight on lung cancer

November is Lung Cancer Awareness month, putting the spotlight on the deadliest form of cancers.

And it’s also a time to make sure the public knows there is a new hope for early detection: lung cancer screening.

“Lung cancer is the leading case of cancer-related deaths,” said Heather Heuer, BRST, R.T.(T), the Lung Cancer Patient Navigator at UP Health System-Marquette. “More people die from lung cancer than from colon cancer, breast cancer and prostate cancer combined.”

Heuer said the American Cancer Society estimates in 2019, nationally, there will be a 228,150 new cases and 142,670 lung cancer deaths.

In Michigan alone, 8,070 new cases of lung cancer are expected annually and 5,410 deaths.

At UPHS-Marquette in 2017, there were 117 new lung cancer patients.

“It is usually about 100 new cases here each year,” Heuer said.

The new screening is so crucial because of the nature of the disease itself.

“Lung cancer can be asymptomatic, so a person can have it and not know it. By the time they do have symptoms, they may already be in the late stages,” she said. “It’s one of the things I like to put out there about why it’s so deadly, because it’s not found until its late stages.”

While lung cancer can be asymptomatic, some symptoms that might appear as the disease reaches its later stages include shortness of breath, a persistent cough, coughing up blood, weight changes or a change in voice.

But now there is screening available to detect lung cancer before those late-stage symptoms appear, screening that could cut the horrible statistics associated with the disease.

“The screening is for patients who are at high-risk for developing lung cancer,” Heuer said. “The screening will be done before any symptoms are noticed and it will help to detect lung cancer earlier and make it much more treatable.”

That treatment could involve surgery or 3-5 stereotactic radiation treatments.

For patients wondering if they qualify for the lung cancer screening, Heuer recommends they speak with their primary physician as a first step.

“Those who may qualify for the screening are ages 55-80 who are current smokers with a 30-pack per year history (number of packs smoked per day x years you have smoked = packs per year history) or former smokers who have quit within 15 years,” she said.

This screening is covered at no cost to the patient by most insurance as well as Medicaid and Medicare, although Heuer recommends that, as with any medical procedure, the patient should check with the insurance company first.

The screening itself is done with a CT scan and takes about five minutes. The patient lies down and is run through the scanner once or twice.

That’s it.

Heuer said the results are read within 24 to 48 hours. The patient will receive a letter or a phone call and the results will be sent to the patient’s primary physician as well.

Heuer reminds people they can be pro-active with their health and there’s one huge change they can make to reduce the potential risk of lung cancer.

“Smoking is by far the No. 1 risk factor for lung cancer and when you quit smoking, you not only reduce your cancer risk, you reduce the risk of other disease as well,” Heuer said. “If a person wants to quit smoking, we have resources available at UPHS-Marquette to help.”

Other resources that are helpful to anyone trying to quit smoking include the Michigan Tobacco Quitline at 1-800-QUIT-NOW (784-8669) and the federal website at smokefree.gov.

To find out more about the lung cancer resources at UPHS-Marquette, visit http://www.mgh.org/our-services/cancer-care/lung-cancer-screening

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