It took just five minutes for doctors to confirm for Brigitte Ponton that something was wrong.
In May, Ponton was diagnosed with lung cancer, the deadliest form of cancer that kills more men and women than any other cancer. But thanks to a new screening available to patients at high risk for lung cancer, Ponton’s cancer was caught in its earliest stage, meaning she’ll have a better chance for survival.
Lung cancer has the lowest five-year survival rates of any cancer – 17.8 percent, according to the American Lung Association. Medical experts like Bassam Mattar, an oncologist with the Cancer Center of Kansas, say that’s because most patients aren’t diagnosed until the cancer has reached stage 3 or higher, when it has spread.
“It’s the No. 1 killer in the state,” said Amy Haynes, communications director for the region’s American Cancer Society. Of the nearly 2,000 new cases that will be diagnosed in Kansas this year, about 1,540 will die. Of the more than 224,390 new cases that will be diagnosed this year in the U.S., more than 158,000 will die, she said.
If diagnosed in its early stages, however, lung cancer can be treatable, significantly upping a patient’s five-year survival rate. According to an American Lung Association fact sheet, the five-year survival rate for lung cancer when it’s still localized within the lungs is 55 percent; but only 16 percent of cases are diagnosed at such an early stage.
Lung cancer screening
Until recently, there wasn’t a recommended screening to detect lung cancer early, like there has been for breast, colon and prostate cancers. That changed when a study conducted by the National Cancer Institute found that a simple, noninvasive low-dose CT scan that takes about five minutes could help catch lung cancer early and prevent lung cancer deaths.
The study – the National Lung Cancer Screening Trial – involved more than 53,400 current or heavy smokers between 55 and 74 years old and compared two ways of detecting lung cancer: a low-dose CT scan that takes multiple images of the entire chest; and a chest X-ray. Those receiving the CT scan had a 15 to 20 percent lower risk of dying from lung cancer than those who received the chest X-ray, according to results released in August 2011.
Based on that study, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force – a panel of national health experts who evaluate the latest studies and research – came out with guidelines for lung cancer screening in December 2013, recommending that annual screening start at age 55 for current smokers and those who’ve quit within the past 15 years and have a tobacco smoking history of at least 30 pack years. A pack year is determined by multiplying the number of packs of cigarettes smoked a day times the number of years smoking, such as two packs a day for 15 years.
Since last year, Wesley Healthcare and Via Christi Health in Wichita have offered the screenings to eligible, high-risk patients. For those who qualify, the screenings are covered by Medicare and private insurance. The maximum age for screening under Medicare guidelines is 77.
At Wesley, more than 100 patients have received the screening this year, with three patients being diagnosed with cancer, according to Chelsea Simpson, an oncology certified nurse who oversees the screenings. At Via Christi, 145 patients have been screened since July 1, 2015, when it started its lung cancer screening program, according to spokeswoman Roz Hutchinson, with Ponton being the sole patient with a positive diagnosis.
To receive the screening, patients are referred to the program by their primary care physician. At Via Christi and Wesley, dedicated nurse navigators will continue to work with and be available to the patients as a resource.
Ponton’s cancer was stage 1, or an early-stage cancer. In August, Ponton – who in the past 30 years has already survived three other forms of cancer – underwent surgery to remove the upper lobe of her left lung.
“I was blessed that I don’t have to undergo treatments,” said Ponton, who at age 55 met the minimum age for the lung cancer screening guidelines.
While she’s smoked since she was 13 – “I grew up at a time when you could buy cigarettes for your folks,” she said – doctors tell her it was likely the radiation she’d received at age 25 for Hodgkins lymphoma that led to many of her health problems, including this bout with cancer. Because of her health history, she’s paid attention to sudden changes in her health, like a significant weight change earlier this year. Working with her providers at GraceMed, she underwent tests and screenings, including a colonoscopy, until she was referred for the lung cancer screening at Via Christi.
But while the screening is meant to catch cancer early, sometimes it doesn’t. That’s the case for Roger Adamson, who knew that the air he was breathing as he built steel mills “wasn’t quite right.” Like Ponton, the 66-year-old Adamson was a longtime smoker, although he quit cold turkey in June after an emergency room visit to get a breathing treatment for his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.
“I worked construction and I had a cigarette in my mouth all the time,” he said of his 45-year habit. “But I got fed up with it.”
Since his screening at Wesley in September, he’s been undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Because his cancer had spread to lymph nodes around the tumor found in the upper left lung close to his heart, he’s not a candidate for surgery, Adamson said. Doctors have told him his five-year survival rate is 20 percent.
“I go one day at a time and am thinking positive,” Adamson said. “That’s all I can do. I wasn’t shocked when they told me I had cancer, with the job I had. I probably breathed in some things that weren’t quite right.”
Quit smoking to lower risks
Every year, the American Cancer Society holds its Great American Smokeout the third Thursday of November to draw attention to the health risks of smoking and encourage smokers to quit. Smoking is the No. 1 cause of lung cancer, the deadliest form of cancer that kills more men and women than any other cancer.
Besides talking to your doctor about ways to quit smoking, here are other available resources:
▪ The American Cancer Society offers a 24/7 smoking cessation hotline, 800-227-2345, and various online resources and tool kits at cancer.org. This year, it also introduced a free smoking cessation app, Quit For Life. The app is designed to help smokers quit smoking and former smokers continue their cessation.
▪ Wesley Healthcare offers a free smoking cessation class the second Monday of every month from 4 to 5 p.m. at the Wesley Medical Center Cessna Conference Room. The class is taught by a longtime respiratory therapist.
▪ Kansans can also take advantage of KanQuit, a free resource to quit tobacco use offered by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. Go to kanquit.org.