Low Dose CT Lung Cancer Screening has Potential to Save Lives
Lung cancer causes more deaths every year in the United States than colon, breast and prostate cancers combined.
Not counting skin cancer, it is the second most common cancer in both men and women, with symptoms that usually don’t present until the disease has reached an advanced stage.
Penn State Health St. Joseph offers a screening that was proven in a clinical trial to reduce the chance of dying from lung cancer. This low dose CT lung cancer screening (LDCT) is more effective than a chest x-ray in diagnosing potential problems, and uses lower amounts of radiation than a standard chest CT.
“Because it’s a lower dose of radiation than with a regular CT scan of the chest we can use this as a screening tool,” explained Jason Dunlap, manager of imaging services. “It’s important to keep the radiation dose as low as possible.”
Screening for lung cancer in people at high risk for the disease can be an effective means of detecting the disease early, which can lower the risk of death.
“A lot of people only start experiencing symptoms of lung cancer when it reaches stage 3 or 4,” said Patrice Prutzman, a CT technologist and lung screening coordinator at St. Joseph. “These screenings can catch something at a much earlier stage.”
While the screenings have been proven to be effective, they are not for everyone.
LDCTs are recommended for patients between the ages of 55 and 77 who have a 30 pack-year history of smoking. That means a person would have smoked the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes each day for 30 years.
Candidates for screening must be smokers or former smokers who have quit within the past 15 years, and must be in reasonably good physical condition, as screenings are done to detect cancer in patients who have not experienced symptoms. If symptoms are present, tests are done for diagnostic purposes and are not a screening tool.
The low-dose CT scan does not require the use of IV contrast dye, meaning it’s more comfortable for patients.
“It’s pretty easy as far as tests go,” Dunlap said. “There’s really no preparation and there’s no pain involved.”
Anyone who wishes to have the screening and meets the general criteria should talk to his or her doctor. A doctor must decide whether the screening would be beneficial and fill out a form for a patient in a specified manner, using a special set of codes. Once the form is completed, either the patient or the doctor’s office can schedule the screening. Nearly all insurances cover the cost of the screening.
Everyone who comes to Penn State St. Joseph for a screening receives smoking cessation materials and counseling. If something suspicious is found during the screening, further tests may be required to determine whether cancer is present.
If there is cancer, the patient will be referred to St. Joseph’s Multidisciplinary Lung Clinic, which includes radiologists, pathologists, pulmonologists, thoracic surgeons, medical oncologists and radiation oncologists. A Lung Nurse Navigator is assigned to guide each patient and patient’s family members through the entire process.
About 170 people were screened since St. Joseph began offering the service in February 2015, with some having already had two annual screenings. Once a doctor recommends the screening, it is recommended that it be repeated annually.
While the screening cannot prevent cancer from occurring, it can increase the chances of detecting it early, when it is treatable. Ideally, patients who receive the screening will stop smoking, but that does not always occur.
“It can be a huge challenge for someone who is addicted to nicotine to quit smoking,” Dunlap said. “Not everyone can do that, but if they can’t we can at least provide tools that can lessen the chances of them dying from lung cancer.”