Defeating Lung Cancer With Early Detection

CT scans offer hope to patients with a high risk for lung cancer
3D image of lungs

Lung cancer kills more people in the United States than breast, prostate, colorectal, and pancreatic cancers combined. Unfortunately, most people who develop lung cancer do not develop symptoms until it has become more advanced. The result is late diagnosis, where treatment can be effective, but rarely curative.

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However, there is good news: if found early in its course, the disease can be curable. Peter Mazzone, MD, Director of the Lung Cancer Program, explores the only proven lung cancer screening test we have available to us today.

What options are available for early detection?

Lung cancer detection and new treatment options remain top of mind for pulmonary disease researchers. His recent work in breath analysis is expected to be the future of non-invasive testing, but what is available to consumers now?

Within the last year, a National Lung Screening Trial (NLST) showed evidence in favor of using low-dose computed tomography (CT) scans as a way to detect early stages of lung cancer. The study showed that in high-risk patients, CT scans can lower the number of lung cancer-related deaths by 20 percent.

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Today, approximately one in seven patients diagnosed with lung cancer will be cured of the disease. There has been a 20 percent decrease in the number of lung cancer-related deaths in the high risk group, a major advance.

“This means that for every five people who die of lung cancer without getting screened, we can now save at least one of those people,” Dr. Mazzone says.

How does CT scanning work?

The goal of screening for disease is to reduce the risk of dying from the disease in those who are at high risk for developing it. 

A low-dose CT scan combines X-ray views from multiple angles to create a two-dimensional image of your lungs.  The image is reviewed by physicians for small abnormalities, or nodules, on the lungs.

“There’s a very good chance we’ll find something on the lungs,” Dr. Mazzone says. “But often times, the lung nodules are not a cause for concern.”  The presence of lung nodules does not pose an immediate threat for lung cancer because typically, only three or four out of 100 nodules are cancerous.

Following a CT scan in which lung nodules are identified, additional tests will be performed to determine if treatment is necessary.

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Who should be screened?

In the past, using CT scans to detect lung cancer was controversial because of the exposure of patients to radiation. The danger of overtreatment when a CT scan revealed lung nodules that may or may not develop dangerous tumors presented cause for concern. 

“There is a small, but real radiation risk in using CT scans,” Dr. Mazzone says.  “The benefits of low-dose screening within a high-risk population far outweigh the risks.”

The amount of radiation used is five times lower than the amount used in a standard chest scan, and physicians agree that detecting the No. 1 death-causing cancer early is worth the low-radiation risk.

To limit radiation exposure and reduce risk, Cleveland Clinic has followed industry guidelines in providing CT scans to those that fall within the high-risk population for developing lung cancer included in the study that proved its benefit.  People in this category include:

  • Individuals who are 55-74 years of age.
  • Individuals who have a minimum 30-pack-year history of smoking (A “pack year” is the equivalent of smoking one pack of cigarettes a day for a year).
  • Individuals who currently smoke, or.
  • Individuals who have quit smoking in the past 15 years.

While early detection for lung cancer improves with technology, it’s important to note that the best way to reduce your risk of lung cancer is to refrain from smoking.

“Quitting smoking reduces your chances of dying from lung cancer by 50 percent,” Dr. Mazzone says.

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