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Lung cancer is one of the most preventable causes of cancer deaths

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Posted at 11:10 AM, Nov 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-18 14:50:33-05

Editor's note: This article is the part of a monthly series of stories focused on cancer issues. Denver7 is proud to partner with the American Cancer Society, Cancer Support Community, Colorado Cancer Coalition and Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at HealthONE to bring you these stories, tips and resources.

DENVER -- Lung cancer is the leading cause of U.S. cancer deaths. More people die from lung cancer than breast, colorectal and prostate cancers combined.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has expanded screening guidelines in an effort to help increase early detection rates. The new recommendations for screening include people from 50 to 80 years old who have a 20 pack-per-year smoking history, minimum, and are current smokers or have quit within the past 15 years.

More people die from lung cancer than breast, colorectal and prostate cancers combined.This year in Colorado, the American Cancer Society estimates that 2,550 people will be diagnosed with lung and bronchus cancers and 1,450 people will die from the disease.Smoking raises the risk for lung cancer and is by far the leading cause of lung cancer. Other factors such as exposure to other chemicals and genetic changes can cause lung cancer.

Lung Cancer Risk Factors
As you likely already know, smoking causes a large majority of lung cancers in adults, but non-smokers are also diagnosed with lung cancer. Here are some common risk factors you might not be as familiar with:

  • Breathing second-hand smoke from cigarettes, pipes, or cigars.
  • Exposure to high levels of radon, a gas from rocks and dirt that occurs naturally and can get trapped in houses and buildings.
    • Exposure to workplace substances like asbestos, arsenic, diesel exhaust and some forms of silica and chromium.
    • Having immediate family members like parents, siblings or children who were diagnosed with lung cancer.
    • Being a cancer survivor who received radiation therapy to the chest as part of treatment.

Lung Cancer Symptoms
Unfortunately, people with early-stage lung cancer don’t experience any symptoms. As cancer grows, common symptoms of lung cancer include:

  • Cough that won’t go away
  • Coughing up blood
  • Chest pain
  • Trouble swallowing or breathing
  • Feeling tired and rundown
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pneumonia
  • Wheezing
  • Hoarseness
  • Weight loss/not feeling hungry

Remember, these symptoms could also be due to another medical issue, so its important to talk to your doctor about any symptoms you might be having.

Lung Cancer Screening

What do the lung cancer screening guidelines state?  
New guidelines from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, published on March 9, 2021, state that people age 50-80 who have at least a 20 pack-per-year smoking history and are current smokers, or, who have quit within the past 15 years, should be screened for lung cancer yearly using low-dose computed tomography (LDCT).

  • A 20 pack-per-year smoking history refers to someone who has smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for the last 20 years or two packs a day for the past 10 years.

How do these differ from previous guidelines?
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force previously recommended that adults ages 55-80 (as opposed to 50-80) who had a 30 pack-per-year smoking history (as opposed to 20) and currently smoke or had quit within the past 15 years be screened for lung cancer. 

Why are these guidelines important? 
According to the American Cancer Society, more than 235,000 Americans will be diagnosed with lung cancer in 2021 and there will be more than 131,000 lung cancer-related deaths. 
Lung cancer is the leading cause of death due to cancer in America, but the earlier lung cancer is identified and treated, the better the odds of survival. According to the National Cancer Institute, when the disease remains localized within the lungs, the five-year relative survival is 59%. However, once it has metastasized, the rate drops to 5.8%.
The new guidelines increase the eligible population to approximately 15 million people, including more African Americans and women.
Additionally, the screening must be covered by private insurance for those who are eligible under the new guidelines.

What are common symptoms of lung cancers? 
Even with screening at a younger age, knowing some of the common signs and symptoms of lung cancer can increase the odds of it being discovered at an earlier, and potentially more treatable, stage. 

Lung cancer can cause symptoms that are linked to breathing such as:

  • A persistent or chronic cough that gets worse over time
  • Hoarseness
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath or wheezing
  • Frequent pneumonia or bronchitis
  • Frequent lung infections, such as bronchitis or pneumonia
  • Having blood in your sputum when you cough

Other symptoms more commonly appear after the lung cancer has spread. These include:

  • Headaches
  • Bone or back pain or fractures
  • Swelling of the neck and face
  • Appetite loss
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • New inability to control the bladder or bowel
  • Seizure activity, specific weakness or numbness
  • Unexplained clotting problems resulting in heart attack or stroke

How Artificial Intelligence is Saving Lives
The Sarah Cannon Cancer Network at HealthONE is using advanced artificial intelligence (AI) technology to help detect lung cancer early. AI technology scans radiology reports for all chest CTs performed in the various hospitals and facilities for the word “nodule” related to lung and a few other keywords to help identify lung nodules, which is an abnormal spot seen on an imaging exam. The nodules may be of early or varying degrees of concern, Dr. Marks said.

“Our software pulls out reports that are fed to our lung nodule coordinator at each facility who then goes in and reviews the chart and verifies the info that the technology picked up,” she said.

Any concerning lung nodule is brought to a multidisciplinary tumor conference at each hospital. There a team of invested physicians who treat those nodules — a thoracic surgeon, a pulmonologist, a radiologist, a medical oncologist and a radiation oncologist — then determine the appropriate follow up.

“We have the expert eyes; this is what we look at and deal with every single day and we can pick out the nodules that are concerning and help facilitate a much more rapid follow-up or workup for that nodule so we’re not losing time for a potential malignancy,” Dr. Marks said.

Learn more in this video.

Biomarker testing tool for lung cancer
This groundbreaking streamlined platform from the Cancer Support Community empowers lung cancer patients and their loved ones to be informed and active participants in the treatment decision-making process.

Biomarker testing is a transformative, relatively new development in cancer care that helps doctors learn more about the specific subtype of cancer of their patients. Depending on the results of biomarker testing, this information can be used to provide targeted therapy to treat this specific subtype of cancer. By answering a few brief questions, lung cancer patients and their loved ones can receive personalized information about their biomarker testing options and how targeted therapy could impact the course of their treatment.

You can learn more about how this works from a patient who used the tool or through lung cancer resource page of the Cancer Support Community.

American Cancer Society Great American Smokeout
The American Cancer Society Great American Smokeout is on the third Thursday of November. This year it’s November 18. The Great American Smokeout is an opportunity for people who smoke to commit to healthy, smoke-free lives — not just for a day, but year round.

The Great American Smokeout event challenges people to stop smoking and helps people learn about the many tools they can use to help them quit and stay quit.

About 32.4 million American adults still smoke cigarettes, and smoking remains the single largest preventable cause of death and illness in the world.

The American Cancer Society has resources to quit at cancer.org/smokeout and 1-800-227-2345