When doctors catch lung cancer at its earliest stage, there’s a 90 percent cure rate. Frequently, the only treatment needed is surgery. Yet all too often, patients and doctors miss the opportunity to prevent the disease’s deadly progression.
As a pulmonologist at Vancouver Clinic, I’ve seen too many missed opportunities to identify lung cancer before it spreads. That’s why, for the past three years, I’ve been leading the very first fully accredited lung cancer screening program in Southwest Washington. As of this fall, the program has more than 2,250 people enrolled.
Yearly low-dose CT scans catch cancer early
Lung cancer is the number one cause of cancer deaths in men and women. It accounts for more deaths than breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer combined. According to the American Cancer Society, a history of heavy tobacco use is linked to 80 percent of lung cancer cases. By specifically screening current and former smokers, we can save lives. A U.S. Preventive Services Task Force report on lung cancer screening found that one life is saved for roughly every 300 people screened.
Vancouver Clinic’s lung cancer screening program provides high-risk patients with ongoing monitoring and support. Patients in the program receive a low-dose CT scan once a year. Renee Klein, RN, our nurse navigator and coordinator, makes sure patients get the care they need by calling with appointment reminders and arranging additional scans, biopsies, and follow-ups with specialists, as necessary.
The comprehensive nature of the program means that patients are supported at every step. Individuals are less likely to put themselves at risk by skipping their annual scans. Should a concern arise, they get help connecting with expert doctors—including local oncologists. What’s more, because the program is designed around Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) guidelines, screening costs are typically reimbursed by insurers.
Current, former tobacco users program’s focus
Patients who are between the ages of 50 and 80 and who have smoked a pack a day for 20 years, or two packs a day for 10 years, are eligible to be enrolled. Former smokers who have quit within the last 15 years are eligible. Patients who qualify but haven’t joined the program should talk to their clinician.
I’m hopeful that, in the future, CMS will broaden its guidelines to include younger patients and individuals who have smoked or are smoking fewer cigarettes a day. The screenings are already saving lives. So far, our team has identified dozens of early-stage cancers. These patients have a much higher chance of survival now than if the cancer had progressed. The screenings are also providing peace of mind. At least half of the people receiving scans are former smokers. They often regret smoking and feel they made a mistake. Yearly scans provide much-needed reassurance.
False positives possible, but benefits greater
The science shows that lung cancer screenings are highly effective. It’s why I will continue to be a huge advocate for this program. However, it’s important for patients to know that there are risks. It’s possible to get a false positive result, which can be scary. In extremely rare instances, someone might undergo
surgery for what turns out to be a benign nodule. What physicians don’t consider a huge risk is radiation exposure. Radiation from a yearly scan is minimal. Please talk to your clinician if you have questions about whether this program is right for you.
Collaborative approach puts patients first
One of the most valuable parts of the lung cancer screening program for patients is our team approach. Patients have a direct line to our care coordinator, making it easy to ask questions and get help with scheduling. We also work closely with area hospital systems, facilitating access to cutting-edge diagnostics and best-in-class surgical care. Our pulmonologists have deep connections with other physicians in the community, allowing ongoing collaboration—no matter where in the screening or care process a patient is.
If you believe you or a loved one may qualify for regular lung cancer screenings, talk to your clinician. Vancouver Clinic is accepting program referrals from our own doctors as well as other physicians in the community. Our goal is to provide the long-term monitoring individuals with a history of tobacco use need to protect their health for the future. Learn more at tvc.org/services/pulmonology/.
Dr. Nicholas Wysham is a pulmonologist practicing at Vancouver Clinic’s 87th Avenue location. He focuses on caring for patients with advanced lung disease and improving their quality of life.