Only a fraction of US adults at high risk for lung cancer are routinely screened for the disease even though it is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States; causing more deaths than breast, colorectal, and prostate cancer combined. New American Cancer Society guidelines released this month recommend that an addition 5 million patients undergo regular low dose CT scans to screen for lung cancer. The new guidelines expanded its eligibility to include any adults over age 50 with at least a 20-year smoking history.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer related death because so many patients are diagnosed at late stages when curing the disease is not possible. Many former and current tobacco users are unaware that a simple, annual low-dose CT scan can catch lung cancers early enough to achieve a cure.
Over 14 million Americans are at high risk for lung cancer and could benefit from a lung cancer screening, and yet only 5-15% actually undergo any screening and even fewer return annually for follow up screenings.
Dr. Ethan Bernstein, assistant professor of medicine, joined the Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine team at UConn Health after completing his residency and fellowship at Yale University. In conjunction with Dr. Electra Kaloudis, director, Lung Cancer Screening Program in Radiology at UConn Health, they are in the process of evolving lung cancer screening at UConn Health into a subspecialized clinic that aims to reduce barriers to lung cancer screening.
“Our goal is to have a one stop shop for lung cancer screening through a centralized program so patients are committed to come back year after year, this will enable us to make a difference in lung cancer mortality by finding and treating it early,” says Bernstein.
“I’m excited that Dr. Bernstein is here because we can now evolve the process into a program so instead of leaving the onus on primary care doctors, they can now refer to the lung cancer screening program,” says Kaloudis. “Combining the pulmonology and radiology departments, this program creates a more robust and encompassing program to make it easier to identify eligible patients and provide preventative care in an expedited and consistent manner.”
In the early stages of lung cancer, it is curable in many cases by removal through a surgical resection with no need for chemotherapy or radiation and only follow up of surveillance CT scans. “Our goal is for more patients to not only come in for initial screening, but to commit to come back year after year,” says Bernstein. “Many patients will fear finding something, but if you find cancer at an early stage, you can achieve a cure.”
A shared decision-making visit with Bernstein or his team, is the first step. To make this logistically more practical for patients, this can be done virtually. Once it is confirmed that the patient meets criteria for screening, they are set up with a screening CT scan that does not require an IV or change of clothes, taking about 5 minutes with results processed in a 24 hour turn around.
The vast majority of patients will be contacted that their results are negative and an appointment for their next screening in one year will be scheduled. If there is something worrisome, the patient may come back in a shorter interval or be referred for a PET/CT or biopsy.
For many, there is stigma attached to smoking and Bernstein finds that many patients are reluctant to engage in lung cancer screening because they are still smoking. Bernstein wants to make it clear that this is a judgement free program and will be coupled with smoking cessation resources.
Early detection of lung cancer in high-risk patients can reduce lung cancer mortality by 20%. If you smoke now or have in the past, ask your doctor if lung cancer screening may be right for you.
To make an appointment for a lung cancer screening, call UConn Health at 844-777-LUNG to discuss your health history and answer a few questions. A nurse navigator will call you back to discuss your eligibility for the screening test.
The Great American Smokeout is Thursday, November 16th. Quitting smoking isn’t easy. It takes time. And a plan. You don’t have to stop smoking in one day. Start with day one. Let the Great American Smokeout event be your day to start your journey toward a smoke-free life. You’ll be joining thousands of people who smoke across the country in taking an important step toward a healthier life and reducing your cancer risk.