As a physician specializing in the treatment of cancer, one of the hardest things I routinely deal with is seeing patients die from preventable illnesses. One I think most people will recognize is lung cancer.
Lung cancer is the number one cancer killer in both men and women in this country, killing about 160,000 Americans every year. This is comparable to the number of patients killed by the next most deadly (prostate, breast, colorectal, and pancreatic) cancers combined. Prostate and breast cancers are more common, but lung cancer is far more deadly.
The most important thing you can do to avoid lung cancer is to avoid tobacco use. Tobacco is the number one modifiable risk factor for death, greater than blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, alcohol, or any other single factor you can control to any extent. Talk to your doctor about quitting resources. I hear from patients every day who have tried to quit. My response is always the same: try again, and we can help.
One of the reasons lung cancer is so deadly is because it is difficult to detect early, when the tumor is small and more easily treatable. Most lung cancer patients don’t notice any symptoms until it has advanced to an incurable stage.
Fortunately, this may change in the coming years. We have an opportunity to catch more lung cancers early by screening healthy patients using low-dose CT scans of the lungs.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends annual screening for lung cancer in adults ages 55 to 80 who have a 30 pack-year smoking history and currently smoke or have quit within the last 15 years.
To calculate your pack years, multiply the number of years smoked by the average number of packs per day for your smoking history in pack-years.
It is my hope and expectation that, much like we saw in breast cancer with the advent of mammography, we will start to see more lung cancers caught earlier when the chances of curing them are far greater.
No one wants to think about the possibility they might currently or someday have cancer. But if you meet the USPSTF criteria, ask your doctor about lung cancer screening. Trust me. You’ll be glad you did. The treatment is much easier and far more successful, if you do.
Matthew Vernon, MD, is the radiation oncologist at the Southwestern Vermont Medical Center Cancer Center and a member of the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Putnam Medical Group. For more information about cancer treatment at SVMC call (802) 447-1836 or visit svhealthcare.org/cancer. “Health Matters” is a column meant to educate readers about their personal health, public health matters, and public policy as it affects health care.