As a physician specializing in the treatment of cancer, I am sometimes asked, "How could I have avoided getting cancer?"
While you can't eliminate all cancer risk, there are plenty of things you can do to not encourage it.
At the top of that list is abstaining from tobacco. Why? Lung cancer is the number one cancer killer in both men and women, and smoking tobacco accounts for 87% of lung cancers in men and 70% in women in the US today.
One of the reasons for those high numbers is the tobacco itself. When burned, tobacco smoke is made up of more than 7,000 chemicals, including over 70 known to cause cancer. Those poisons can damage or change a cell's DNA, altering its normal growth and function, converting healthy cells into cancerous cells. They can also weaken the body's immune system, making it harder to kill cancer cells as they develop.
Another reason for the for the high fatality rates for lung cancer is because it is difficult to detect early, when tumors are small and more easily treatable. In fact, most lung cancer patients don't notice any symptoms until the cancer has advanced to stage that will be very difficult or impossible to treat successfully. Fortunately, lung cancer can be caught early through preventive screenings.
Like other routine screenings, such as colonoscopy, mammography, and pap smears, annual lung cancer screenings for long-time or heavy smokers allow for year-to-year comparisons of the appearance of patients' lungs. Lung cancer screenings are done with low-dose computed tomography (also called a low-dose CT scan, or LDCT). In this test, an x-ray machine scans the body using low doses of radiation to make a series of detailed pictures of the lungs. Like other preventive screenings, a lung screening may find nothing or it may find something before you develop symptoms. If something is found, it can be treated early. Individuals who undergo treatment early are dramatically more likely to survive.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends annual screenings with LDCT for adults between 55 and 80 years old who are at high risk for lung cancer because they are current heavy smokers or have quit within the past 15 years. Your doctor may also recommend a screening based on other factors, including family history, occupational exposure to certain chemicals, or radon exposure. Screenings require no shots, no prep, are completely painless, and take about 10 minutes. In addition, for those who meet the criteria, they’re covered by Medicare Part B and many other insurances.
It's my hope that, in time, lung screenings for those people at high risk of lung cancer will become as routine as getting a mammogram and or a colonoscopy. With more lung cancers caught earlier, more people will get treated earlier and enjoy longer, healthier lives. If you meet the USPSTF requirements or have questions about screenings, talk to your doctor. And if you are a current smoker, your doctor can help you quit; even better than finding lung cancer early is never developing it in the first place.
Matthew Vernon, MD, is a radiation oncologist at the Southwestern Vermont Regional Cancer Center.