Mammograms and colonoscopies have become routine cancer screenings for most Americans over a certain age, but the cancer that kills the most people — more than breast, colon and prostate cancers combined — still goes largely undetected.
“Most lung cancers don’t cause symptoms until they’re very advanced. Symptoms like unwanted weight loss, chest wall pain or coughing up blood can indicate that the cancer has advanced to Stage Four, when it’s much more difficult to treat,” says Kim Costas, MD, thoracic surgeon at Providence Cardiac and Thoracic Surgery, North Everett.
That’s why Dr. Costas hopes more people will embrace screening, to catch lung cancer sooner. And thanks to a wealth of research over the last decade, screening is now affordable and accessible to more people than ever before.
Who should get screened for lung cancer?
While lung cancer does occur in non-smoking adults, smokers who have smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for 20 years (also known as a 20 pack-year history) are considered high risk.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends annual screening for adults aged 50-80 with a 20 pack-year history who currently smoke or have quit within 15 years. Because of that recommendation, screening is covered by most insurance plans, including Medicaid and Medicare.
“This screening is incredibly effective, and life-saving. A recent study shows that we find breast cancer in 1 of every 800 mammograms; we find lung cancer in 1 of every 320 screenings,” Dr. Costas says.
How do you screen for lung cancer?
At Providence, patients are screened for lung cancer using a low-dose CT scan, which uses 75 percent less radiation than a standard CT scan.
“If the CT scan reveals any spots or nodules on the lungs, at Providence we use the lung-RADS algorithm to assess risk: if you have a nodule of certain size, growing at a specific rate, the algorithm tells us the percentage-risk that it’s malignant. That helps reduce anxiety, because we’re able to give patients more information about their cancer risk,” Dr. Costas says.
If there are nodules or spots of concern, your doctor may schedule a biopsy.
Robotic-assisted lung cancer surgery reduces pain and improves recovery
Removing cancerous nodules on the lungs using open surgery is invasive and painful: surgeons have to divide the muscles on the chest wall and spread, remove or break ribs to access the affected area. In addition to being painful, it also increases the risk of problematic inflammation, infection and breathing issues.
Dr. Costas and her colleagues at Providence use the da Vinci robot to perform robotic assisted surgeries, which are dramatically less invasive. The incisions are much smaller, because the fine-tipped robotic instruments can fit between the ribs without spreading them, and the robotic camera offers surgeons great vision.
“I can actually see better using the robot than I do when performing an open surgery,” Dr. Costas says.
Recovery is faster, and it’s more compatible with radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
Help quitting smoking
Your best defense against lung cancer is quitting smoking.
“It often takes seven or eight tries to quit smoking, but you don’t have to do it alone. Your doctor can help,” Dr. Costas says.
Call 844-587-0089 to schedule a lung cancer screening or visit providence.org/nwlungscreen.