You may have seen the ads on TV for a new lung cancer screening tool, advising you to talk to your doctor if you’ve been a smoker. According to Matthew Gaudet, MD, cardiothoracic surgeon at Ochsner Health System, the earlier lung cancer is detected, the higher the likelihood of a better prognosis. Given the high rates of Louisianans who still smoke, and who were once long-term or heavy smokers, this information couldn’t be more relevant as World Lung Cancer Awareness Day approaches on August 1, 2018. Ochsner Health System President and CEO Warner Thomas recently pledged that the system would increase cancer screenings by more than 140,000 new screenings by 2022, to help address high cancer diagnosis rates in Louisiana and adjacent areas.

“Ninety percent of the lung cancers we see are still attributable to smoking,” says Dr. Gaudet. “The big difference is that with screening of those at risk, we can cure a number of Stage 1 lung cancers with just surgery and offer patients the chance of a longer life expectancy. Screening can show us abnormalities before symptoms begin. When symptoms show up, patients typically have a much more advanced disease, which is much more serious and difficult to address.”

Men who smoke are 23 times more likely to develop lung cancer than those who have never smoked. Women who smoke are 13 times more likely than those who’ve never smoked. Cancer prevention and research has been at the forefront of Ochsner’s legacy for more than 75 years. In 1939, Ochsner's founder, Dr. Alton Ochsner, was the first to connect tobacco and lung cancer.

According to Gaudet, patients who once smoked or who currently smoke should talk to their primary care providers about whether they are suitable candidates for a low-dose CT scan (LDCT, also known as low-dose CAT scan). Low-dose CT scans are valuable for finding smaller abnormal areas in the lungs, more so than chest x-rays. LDCT uses less radiation than a standard chest CT scan and can safely be performed every year.

Current American Cancer Society guidelines recommend that patients without symptoms who are ages 55-77, in fairly good health, and who meet the following conditions be screened with LDCT:

  • Current smokers or smokers who have quit in the past 15 years;
  • Att least a 30 pack-year smoking history be screened annually with LDCT. (A pack-year is the number of years a person smoked multiplied by the number of packs of cigarettes a day. E.g., Someone who smoked two packs a day for 15 years has 30 pack-years of smoking);
  • Receive counseling to quit if they smoke currently;
  • Have been told by their doctor about the possible benefits, limits and harms of screening with LDCT scans; and
  • Have access to a facility with experience in lung cancer screening and treatment.

“If we can make lung cancer screening for patients at high risk as much a part of their annual health care as a mammogram or a prostate exam, we can catch many of these cancers before they spread outside the lung,” says Dr. Gaudet. “We can treat many of them with minimally invasive surgery, a short hospital stay, quicker and easier recovery, and no chemo or radiation. That’s a dramatic difference for patients’ quality of life. We want to reach the point where lung cancer is something people live through. Routine screening and early detection are the key.”

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