November 6, 2023

UW Health encourages lung cancer screenings

A patient being screened for lung cancer

November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month

MADISON, Wis. – Experts are urging community members to talk with their doctor to determine if they could be eligible for lung cancer screening.

Lung cancer is the second-most common cancer in the United States, not counting skin cancer, right behind breast cancer for women and prostate cancer for men. Someone is diagnosed with lung cancer in the U.S. approximately every 2½ minutes, according to the American Lung Association. It is also by far the leading cause of cancer death in the U.S., with approximately 350 deaths per day and accounting for roughly one in five cancer deaths. Each year, more people die of lung cancer than of colon, breast and prostate cancers combined, according to the American Cancer Society.

Screening is a vital tool for early detection of cancer, according to Dr. J. Scott Ferguson, pulmonologist, UW Health, and professor of medicine, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

“Lung cancer is still quite deadly, but if we can detect it at stage 1 or stage 2, before symptoms typically emerge, we have more options for therapies,” said Ferguson, who is also the director of the University of Wisconsin Interventional Pulmonology Program. “When we catch it early and have more options, we also tend to see better outcomes for our patients.”

When lung cancer is detected at an early stage, the five-year survival rate is 61%. When not caught until a late stage, the five-year survival rate is only 7%, according to the American Lung Association.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends yearly lung cancer screening for anyone who is between 50 and 80 years old, has a 20-pack year or more smoking history and smokes now or has quit within the past 15 years. A “pack year” is defined as a person smoking an average of one pack of cigarettes per day for one year. Therefore, a person could have a 20-pack year history by smoking one pack a day for 20 years or two packs a day for 10 years.

Lung cancer screening is done using a low-dose CT scan, which is a quick and painless way to detect nodules and abnormalities in the lungs, according to Dr. Nameer Mardini, medical oncologist at UW Health in northern Illinois, who specializes in lung cancer.

“We want all who are eligible to reach out to their primary care provider to determine if and when lung cancer screening will be right for them,” he said. “This allows us to use the technology effectively while avoiding unnecessary screenings for those who are at low risk of developing lung cancer.”

Lung cancer screening with low-dose CT scans has been recommended for those at high risk since 2013, but only 5.8% of those eligible were screened in 2021, according to the American Lung Association.

If lung cancer is detected in a scan, UW Health in both Wisconsin and Illinois offers robotic-assisted bronchoscopies, which is a technique used to closely investigate the lungs using a small camera on a flexible tube. This innovative procedure allows a care team to get a fast, minimally invasive and comprehensive understanding of a person’s lungs, either determining the abnormality from a screening is not lung cancer or confirming lung cancer and cancer stage, accelerating the patient’s move to the most appropriate lung cancer therapies.

“If a person has a positive lung cancer screening, a biopsy procedure is usually performed,” Ferguson said. “This robotic technology gives the patient an easier experience that is very accurate, minimizing unnecessary or invasive procedures and leading to the best possible therapy plan.”

Saturday, Nov. 11, is National Lung Cancer Screening Day.