Catch Lung Cancer Before It Becomes Deadly
What was responsible for nearly a quarter of all deaths in America last year? The answer is cancer, and of those deaths, lung cancer represents a quarter of that number. This terrible disease is pervasive and notoriously difficult to treat once it has been allowed to spread. It is almost always caused by smoking which releases particles that cause damage to small airways in the lungs. As the lungs try to heal themselves, the regeneration process goes awry and causes mutations that lead to abnormal growth that the body cannot keep in check. This is the beginning of lung cancer. Overtime, the growth gets larger until it invades into a blood vessel. Then the most feared result occurs: widespread disease to other parts of the body. Once this happens, treatment options are few, and the outcomes are not in favor of recovery.
There is, however, a way to find and stop the cancer at its source, when it is just small and confined to a single part of the body, where detection and treatment can halt the worst outcomes before they do so much damage. This is what lung cancer screening does; it looks for anything suspicious that might be the beginning of cancer or something that might turn into cancer in the future, and with proper monitoring and treatment, can prevent it from growing larger or becoming cancer. The screening is done with Low Dose Computed Tomography, basically many X-rays of the lungs taken in thin slices that are piled on top of each other then stacked together to form a complete picture of the lungs. This technology allows doctors to take a look inside the lungs to see if there is anything abnormal. When lung cancer is found still in the lungs, there are more treatment options, and the outcomes are generally favorable. Early detection also allows for closer monitoring, so that if another small cancer begins to grow, it too can be treated before it spreads.
Because lung cancer takes time to develop and grow, not every person needs to be screened for lung cancer. Current guidelines recommend that anyone who has smoked the equivalent of 30 pack years (1 pack a day for 30 years) and is still smoking, or has quit less than 15 years ago should get screened for lung cancer. This test isn’t without some risks, including exposure to radiation and often screening doesn’t find any disease, but for such a widespread and dangerous disease, isn’t it better to be safe than sorry?
Dr. Shiyu Wang is from Southampton, Pennsylvania and graduated from Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine. He is a current second year internal medicine resident at White River Health System. He enjoys sports, especially rugby.