Want to cure lung cancer? Start with screening

November 8, 2012 | by Tami Dennis

Photo of of lung x-rayThe pink-ribbon products are slowly being removed from the shelves, potentially replaced by those with white ribbons. The key word is “potentially.”

While the color pink has dramatically raised awareness of breast cancer and led to increased screening for the disease, the color white – associated with lung cancer – has a long way to go.

Lung cancer experts hope it steps up soon. Not only is lung cancer the leading cancer killer of women, both men and women are not getting the screening they need.

Lung cancer specialists and surgeons are now pushing federal officials and state insurance plans to require coverage for low-dose CT screening for people at high risk of lung cancer. Their call is especially timely now that the Affordable Care Act and state health exchanges appear here to stay. They point to a recent clinical trial, sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, finding that the death toll from lung cancer could be cut by at least 20 percent with early screening.

Dan J. Raz, M.D., surgical director of the Lung Cancer and Thoracic Oncology Program at City of Hope, has seen too many advanced forms of lung cancer — too many people who could have been saved if only they’d undergone screening.

“Most lung cancers are detected when they have already spread through the body and cannot be cured,” he says. Low-dose CT scans can detect 80 percent of lung cancers early in the disease process, when they can be more easily cured.

“The problem is,” Raz explains, “most primary care physicians don’t know about it, and most insurance companies won’t pay for it.”

And to those legislators and insurers worried about costs, he points out that a study in April’s Health Affairs showed how cost-effective such screening can be.

“Assuming current commercial reimbursement rates for treatment, we found that screening would cost about $1 per insured member per month in 2012 dollars. The cost per life-year saved would be below $19,000, an amount that compares favorably with screening for cervical, breast, and colorectal cancers,” the study found.

November’s Lung Cancer Awareness Month may not get the attention of October’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but this disease too can be fought. The Great American Smokeout (Nov. 15), effective though it’s been, is but a beginning. Lung cancer often doesn’t show up until years after a smoker has stopped.

According to the American Cancer Society, about 226,160 cases of lung cancer will be diagnosed this year in the U.S. More than 160,000 people will die from the disease.

Screening, Raz says, is long overdue.

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