Between the COVID-19 pandemic and elections, it seems like our plates are full, but I’d like to take a moment to share the story of Lung Cancer. November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month and White (or Pearl) is its official color. Because the Lung Cancer story doesn’t come wrapped in a pretty color, it is often ignored, but its impact is huge. Lung cancer, the villain in our story, is the most common cause of cancer deaths in the US and the world, but lung cancer awareness lags its deadly impact. Every year, lung cancer causes more deaths then breast, prostate, and colon cancer combined. Despite being responsible for about a third of cancer deaths in the US, it only receives 10% of research funding.
Though we were making some progress with lowering the number of lung cancer deaths, this story, like every good story, had an unexpected plot twist – the pandemic. There has been a significant disruption in cancer care and diagnosis, including an alarming decline in lung cancer diagnoses, due to COVID-19. Recent data shows an average 49% decline in the number of lung cancer diagnoses across states most severely impacted by COVID-19, including Ohio. Compared to the pre-COVID baseline timeframe, lung cancer diagnoses have declined 42% in Ohio as of May 2020.
While that may seem like a positive plot point. it’s anything but. Fewer people aren’t getting lung cancer, we’re just not finding it due to missed screenings and delayed diagnosis and/or treatment. These delays mean that lung cancer is even more likely to be advanced by the time it is found, with treatment options more limited and worse outcomes for patients. We anticipate seeing an increase in lung cancer deaths over the next several years due to these delays.
Our villain has weapons at its disposal, too. Smoking is by far the most common cause of lung cancer. Quitting smoking has always been a good idea but never more so thanks to COVID-19 due to the disease’s impact on the lungs and other body parts. The healthier you are, the better your odds are against COVID-19 if you catch it. Radon, a colorless, odorless gas, is an environmental risk factor for lung cancer and there is radon in Springfield. If your home has not been radon tested, please contact the health department for more information about resources for free testing.
The good news is that our story has a hero – Low Dose Screening Lung CT scan. Early detection is key to defeating our villain and the low dose lung screening CT scan is an excellent tool for this. The scan reduces a patient’s radiation exposure, while still finding early, small lung cancers. It’s quick, painless and complete in 30 seconds or less. No blood draw or IV needed. It’s much more convenient compared to a mammogram, colonoscopy, or rectal exam, even though should continue to have those, too. It’s covered by most insurances for eligible patients. If you are 55 and older and have a significant smoking history or quit in the past 15 years, or if this sounds like your loved one, there’s no excuse to delay screening. Screening facilities here in Springfield are safe and staff follow all CDC guidelines. Talk to your doctor about how to safely undergo lung cancer screening.
Helping our hero are skilled knights in the form of treatment options that work to defeat our villain. Robotic surgery allows more patients to get curative surgery with much faster recovery times. Advances in radiation therapy allow patients who are not surgical candidates to get treatment with fewer side effects than with traditional radiation treatments. Newer, targeted chemotherapy options are increasing the life expectancy of many patients with advanced disease. Patients who were previously given months to live, now live comfortably for years. These advances make it even more important for lung cancer to be caught and treated.
Remember: Nobody deserves cancer. The only villain in this story is Lung Cancer. While it’s critical that we continue our vigilance against COVID-19 with masks, good hand hygiene and physical distancing, we must remember to continue to take care of ourselves and our loved ones, too, and have important health screenings, including lung cancer screenings. Together we can change the ending to this story and have our happily ever after.
If you are 50 or older, have a history of smoking over 30 years and if you currently smoke or quit within the last 15 years, you may benefit from an annual lung cancer screening. Using a CT scan, a radiologist can detect lung nodules that may be cancerous. Detecting lung cancer early can provide better health outcomes for patients. Talk with your physician about lung cancer screening. Call Mercy Health at 937-328-8100 to schedule your lung screening and for more information. Walk-ins welcome based on availability. When you or a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, you want to do everything possible to beat the disease and to have every conceivable advantage. At Mercy Health – Springfield Regional Cancer Center, you benefit from leading-edge technology, access to national clinical trials and a team of highly skilled experts that treats you with compassion right here in Springfield.
Soumya Neravatla, M.D., is a cardiothoracic surgeon.