Lung cancer is the deadliest cancer for men and women.
In 2013, an estimated 159,480 people will die from lung cancer in the United States, approximately three times as many as from colon cancer, the second deadliest U.S. cancer, according to projections by the American Cancer Society.
Tobacco use accounts for 87 percent of lung cancer deaths, with smokers up to 30 times more likely to develop the condition, the society says.
Recent studies, however, show that early detection through screenings may help people live longer.
Graham Mazealous, 58, might have become another statistic, but for a radiation therapy treatment at Baptist Hospital called TrueBeam STx.
Mazealous, who had smoked unfiltered Camels for 43 years, opted for TrueBeam therapy this summer after being diagnosed with bilateral lung cancer. Two years ago, he underwent four rounds of chemotherapy and two surgeries that left him with half function in each lung. He was diagnosed a third time earlier this year, but surgery was not possible as it would have affected his ability to breathe.
Dr. Andre Abitbol, associate medical director of Baptist Hospital Radiation Oncology, removed Mazealous’ tumor in five sessions using TrueBeam over 10 days. The specialized radiation therapy delivers a more precise treatment by targeting the trouble area without affecting surrounding tissue or vital organs.
“TrueBeam STx has the ability to essentially target or ‘lock on’ to the tumor by checking thousands of location points every 10 milliseconds and selectively delivers radiation only when the tumor comes into range. This ability allows us to safely and effectively treat a greater number of complex cancers,” said Dr. Alan Lewin, medical director of radiation oncology at Baptist. To prepare for the procedure, Mazealous had to be fitted for a body cast that compresses the area and aids doctors in mapping and targeting the treatment.
“It’s a horrible, horrible disease,” Mazealous said. “But in spite of that, everything in my treatment has been a wonderful experience in healing.”
In Florida, several hospitals are now using technology to diagnose and treat lung cancer in its early stages.
Mount Sinai Comprehensive Cancer Center offers a Lung Cancer Screening Program, including low-dose CT scans that can detect nodules unseen in a simple chest X-ray.
Dr. Ray Williams, cardiothoracic surgeon at Mount Sinai, spearheaded the screening program following an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2011 that concluded low-dose CT screenings can reduce lung cancer mortality. He believes that 90 percent of lung cancers, when caught early through screening, can be cured through surgical intervention.
“For the first time, we had prospective, randomized data showing that screenings could detect nodules in early stages, and they could be localized and treated,” Williams said.
At the Cleveland Clinic in Weston, doctors offer a procedure called super navigation, a GPS-like system that allows doctors to locate, biopsy and treat tumors in the lungs without surgery.
Mazealous was lucky. His insurance paid for the screenings and treatment because he is considered a high-risk patient because of his age (58) and 43 years as a heavy smoker. Criteria to be eligible for a screening include a patient between 55 and 74, one who has smoked a pack per day for at least 30 years or is a smoker who has quit within the last 15 years.
Last month the National Lung Cancer Screening Trial presented an analysis suggesting that computerized tomography lung cancer screening for high-risk patients is cost-effective.
In South Florida, Williams said, lung cancer screenings are available, but often not covered by insurance companies. He’s betting this will change.
“Unequivocally, within the next year or two, insurance companies will cover this screening for high-risk patients,” Williams said. “Studies are showing screenings will end up saving the insurance companies money in the long run.”