Carroll County Times
Carroll County Times Opinion

Carter: Early screening can improve outcomes for those at risk of lung cancer

Back in the summer, my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer. Small cell, stage IV lung cancer. This the most aggressive form of lung cancer, and it had already spread to other parts of his body.

Since then, he’s undergone chemotherapy treatment every three weeks, and will begin radiation therapy next month. Generally speaking, he has responded well to the treatment. The mass in his lung has shrunk 2 centimeters since he began.


Unfortunately, because the cancer was so advanced, the five-year survival rate for this diagnosis isn’t particularly high, about 8 percent.

This isn’t unusual for lung cancer, which is the second-most common form of cancer in both men and women, and the leading cause of cancer death in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. Lung cancer kills more people each year than the three other most common cancers — colon, breast and prostate — combined.


Why? Most likely, it is because there are well-publicized tests to identify those types of cancers earlier. Like any cancer or disease, recognizing it early can be beneficial to treating it and improving the survival rate.

Historically, however, lung cancer is often caught late in the game, because the symptoms don’t begin to present themselves until the cancer has advanced. Oftentimes, a patient will go for treatment or testing for something else, such as heart disease or pneumonia, and the cancer mass in the lung is discovered.

This was the case with my dad. He had an upper respiratory infection earlier in the summer, which he treated at home. It never really cleared up, though, and it wasn’t until he was seeing a doctor for an outpatient surgery on his eye, of all things, that the medical professionals noted his oxygen was low and sent him to the hospital for pneumonia. From the tests done there, the tumor in his lung was discovered.

When it was later determined the tumor was cancerous, and so advanced, my mother wondered aloud whether there was anything that could’ve been done to catch it sooner, which would have improved his chances of survival.

Turns out, there is, although it’s still relatively new.

Low-dose Computerized Tomography allows patients at a higher risk for lung cancer to be screened before symptoms begin to manifest. Discovery of the cancer at an earlier stages and before it begins to spread gives more opportunity and options for treatment and a better chance of successful outcomes.

In 2013, the National Lung Screening Trial compared the use of standard chest X-rays with low-dose CT scans for the early detection of lung cancer. In an article the Carroll County Times published about this early detection test in 2016, Dr. Randy Becker, a radiologist who practices at Advanced Radiology in Westminster, said these tests showed that "if we did reduced-dose or low-dose CT, we could actually diminish the number of cancer-related deaths from lung cancer by 20 percent, so that was significant."

So who is at higher risk of lung cancer? Put simply, people who smoke, particularly as they get older. My father started smoking cigarettes when he was around 16 years old. He only finally gave it up this summer, shortly before receiving his cancer diagnosis. He’ll turn 67 next week. Fifty solid years of smoking certainly puts you at higher risk of lung cancer.

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Smoking accounts for 87 percent of lung cancer deaths and 30 percent of all cancer deaths, and is associated with the increased risk of at least 15 types of cancer. The risk of developing lung cancer is about 23 times higher for men who smoke as opposed to those who don’t.

Candidates for the low-dose CT screening are those between ages 55 to 77, who have smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for at least 30 years, but are currently showing no symptoms of lung cancer.

The screenings are covered by Medicare, Medicaid and most insurance plans if the patient meets the approved criteria (although co-payments and/or deductibles may be required for some plans).

Lung cancer screens only take about 5 minutes to complete and do not require fasting, involve no injections and there are no restrictions once the test is done. After completion, the images will be read by a radiologist, who will send the results to your physician. If there is concern about lung cancer, your doctor will determine what’s next.

If you’re someone who fits these criteria, it’s probably not a bad idea to talk to your doctor about both the benefits and the risks of a low-dose CT lung cancer screening. Even though there is a chance it wouldn’t have caught the lung cancer sooner, I wish it’s something my dad’s doctor would’ve recommended.

I also wish I would’ve made a bigger deal to my dad about quitting smoking all these years. As he’s always told me though, hindsight is 20/20, deal with what’s in front of you.


November is Lung Cancer Awareness month. Hopefully, my writing about this will encourage someone to say something to their dad or mom, brother or sister, friend or significant other, or anyone else they care for about quitting smoking and, if they would be a candidate, mentioning low-dose CT scans.