Robots, GPS and earlier screenings are the latest high-tech salvo in the war against lung cancer.
The American Lung Association lists lung cancer as the second-most diagnosed cancer in both women and men and the leading cause of cancer death in the country. Lung cancer accounts for 30 percent of all cancer deaths in America, killing more than 150,000 people annually.
In addition, lung cancer has a five-year survival rate of less than 16 percent, a substantially lower number than other major cancers such as breast, colon and prostate, which reach 90 percent or greater, according to the association.
Also, lung cancer has a stigma attached that other cancer victims don’t often face. When singer Donna Summer died from the disease earlier this year, many figured she must have been a smoker. She wasn’t a known smoker. And though smoking is by far the leading cause of lung cancer, 15 percent of people diagnosed with lung cancer have never smoked. (More women than men who have never smoked get lung cancer.)
“The perception that this is a smoker’s cancer is a bit outdated at this point,” said Dr. Rogerio Lilenbaum, chairman of the hematology/oncology program at Cleveland Clinic in Weston. “No one would say this about breast cancer, even though we do have some lifestyle issues that can impact on breast cancer. On the other hand, we don’t want to create this false idea that smoking is no longer relevant. It remains the No. 1 cause and if it were to be eliminated, this disease would go away one day, with few exceptions.”
Results of the National Cancer Institute’s National Lung Screening Trial (NLST) released in August 2011 showed that screening with low-dose spiral computed tomography (CT) scans compared to the previous option — chest X-ray — reduced lung cancer deaths among older heavy smokers by 20 percent. The key to survival is improved detection at the earliest stages.
“In our lifetime we probably won’t see anything potentially as much of a game-changer as this can be,” Lilenbaum said. “This hasn’t taken off at hospitals yet; they are trying to come up with appropriate guidelines, and the incidence of false positives is still quite high. But as screening with CT becomes more common, we’ll see decreased mortality. There’s a reason for optimism.”
A simple test
Rita Seiff is one example of someone well-served by the new CT screening.
Seiff, 66, said she gave herself a great present for her 40th birthday: she quit smoking and never went back. She had begun smoking at about 13.
But having been smoke-free for 26 years, and feeling fine, Seiff, who lives in Boca Raton with her husband, felt she had no reason to think about lung cancer. Still, as a member of the Pap Corps, an organization that raises money for UM’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, Seiff heard a lecture about the new screening program delivered by Dr. Tammy Baxter, a thoracic surgeon at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
“She gave a good talk and it felt like she was talking to me. I was sure she was talking to me,” Seiff said. “I came home and said to my husband, ‘I should take this scan.’ I was in such denial. I had had a chest X-ray six months earlier that showed nothing. But this low-dose CT scan will pick up cancer at its earliest stages. Lung cancer doesn’t show its ugly little face until you’re in Stage 3 and coughing up blood. There are no symptoms.”