Nearly 3,000 people die every year from lung cancer and more than 4,000 receive a new lung cancer diagnosis here in New York City, according to the NYC Department of Health. And although lung cancer mortality has been dropping rapidly since 2009 due to improved diagnosis and treatment, it is still the leading cause of death in NYC, according to the American Cancer Society. Lung cancer is so lethal — approximately 75% of those diagnosed will die within five years — partly because symptoms often do not appear until the cancer has advanced into later and less treatable stages. Yet, despite the high mortality rate, only a small percentage of eligible patients come in for screening, which can detect the disease before symptoms present.
Who Should Get Screened?
First of all, diagnosing and screening are not the same. Screening is used to find cancer in people without symptoms, such as coughing up blood, chest pain, and weight loss, so it can be caught early when treatment is more likely to be successful. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic many elective procedures and screenings were canceled, but, thankfully, important screenings have begun again here at Mount Sinai with added safety precautions in place.
The American Cancer Society has created screening guidelines for people who are at a higher risk:
-Adults between the ages of 50-80.
-Current smokers or former smokers who quit in the past 15 years.
-Those with a smoking history of 20 packs a year, whether it was 2 packs/day for 10 years or 1 pack/day for 20 years.
-Are or were exposed to secondhand smoke.
-Have a family history of lung cancer.
-Are exposed to radon gas that can be present in houses and buildings.
-Are or were exposed to cancer-causing agents in the workplace, such as asbestos.
Keep in mind, these are guidelines, as lung cancer can occur in people who never smoked and the rate of lung cancer among non-smokers may actually be growing.
What is Lung Cancer Screening?
To screen for lung cancer we use a low-dose CT scan which provides us with more detailed pictures than chest x-rays and uses a lower amount of radiation than regular CT scans. Most insurance plans now cover cancer screenings, but we can help you figure this out. For people at higher-risk we may want to do this screening yearly.
Should something abnormal be spotted on the scan, this may require further scanning or even a biopsy. Most abnormalities, though, are found to be benign lesions and not related to cancer. When cancer is diagnosed, the good news is that by detecting it early, the great majority can be cured.
How To Reduce Your Risk of Lung Cancer
Although lung cancer can occur even in non-smokers, it is still much more common in current or former smokers, so quitting is a vital way to reduce your risk of this disease, as well as limiting your exposure to any smoke, particularly secondhand. We can help you quit.
Now that the COVID-19 infection rate is dropping, I implore you to not neglect important and potentially life-saving procedures.
Javier Zulueta, MD is Senior Faculty and Chief of the Division of Medicine (Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine) at Mount Sinai Morningside.