Tossing Lines: Lung cancer screening can pay off with early diagnosis, longer life

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November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month, and if you’re a smoker, or former smoker, there’s a lung screening program you need to be aware of.

But to benefit from it, you have to act before your lungs start complaining. If you wait until symptoms occur, it may be too late.

The American Lung Association says “more than half of people with lung cancer die within one year of being diagnosed.” The five-year survival rate for lung cancer is also bleak, less than 18 percent, lower than colon, breast and prostate cancers.

Fortunately, there’s an exciting program available locally to help smokers and former smokers, led by Dr. Louis Mazzarelli, a diagnostic radiologist at Yale New Haven Health’s Lawrence + Memorial Hospital. It’s already saving lives.

A 2011 New England Journal of Medicine study called the “National Lung Screening Trial” demonstrated that screening with low-dose CT scans reduced the mortality rate of lung cancer by 20 percent in high-risk individuals.

All too familiar with the carnage of lung cancer, Mazzarelli championed early screenings with Yale-Lawrence & Memorial Hospital administrators.

A computerized tomography (CT) scan comprises a series of X-ray images taken from different angles, creating cross-sectional images of bones, blood vessels and soft tissues, providing a more detailed picture than standard X-rays.

“When symptoms such as cough and weight loss appear, the disease often is too late to cure,” Mazzarelli warned in a recent phone interview.

He was impressed by how many lives could be saved through early lung screenings.

“Statistics show there are about 9 million high-risk patients in the U.S. who meet the criteria for the program,” he noted. “Reducing the mortality rate by 20 percent represents a lot of lives saved.”

Eligible participants must be over the age of 55 and have what is known as a “30 pack year” history.

This means the person smoked at least one pack per day for 30 years or two packs per day for 15 years, as well as other combinations adding up to a total of 30 or more.

If patients have stopped smoking, they are eligible for screening for 15 years from the time they quit.

Early lung screening at L+M has already uncovered a significant number of curable cancers that could have cut lives short without early detection.

The procedure can also discover other conditions, including renal, kidney and bone cancers.

Early screening is fast and easy. There’s no preparation and no needles. The scan itself takes just minutes and uses about five times less radiation than a standard X-ray.

Radiologists interpret the scan, looking for small lung nodules and masses that are often missed by traditional X-rays. In many cases, a surgeon can remove the lung cancer before it becomes life-threatening.

Potential candidates for early screening should first consult with their physicians, as the program requires a doctor’s recommendation.

Medicare and some private insurers have recognized the benefit of early screening and now cover the cost of the procedure.

Screenings are conveniently conducted at multiple L+M sites.

It bears repeating: more than half of people with lung cancer die within one year of being diagnosed, and the five-year survival rate for lung cancer is grim.

One of Connecticut Magazine’s Top Docs for 2017, Dr. Mazzarelli says “Please, if you are a smoker, do your best to quit. And even if you have quit, talk to your doctor about screening. It very well could save your life.”

Words to live by.

John Steward lives in Waterford. He can be reached at tossinglines@gmail.com. Read more at www.johnsteward.online.


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