(BPT) – By Daniel J. Boffa, MD, MBA, FACS
Lung cancer takes the lives of about 127,000 people in the United States annually – nearly the same number of people who will die from colon, breast and prostate cancer combined. And yet 1 out of 5 people who smoked could have saved their life with a simple test – a low-dose CT scan – catching the cancer before it spreads to lymph nodes and other vital organs.
Tragically, this simple test – one of our best weapons against one of the most dangerous cancers – is not being used frequently enough. As a result, tens of thousands of people are lost each year to a disease they could have beaten.
As a surgeon who cares for lung cancer patients and a leader with the American College of Surgeons Commission on Cancer, I have heard many reasons from people over the years about why they have not participated in lung cancer screening. We need to get past these barriers to save more lives. In the spirit of Lung Cancer Awareness Month this November, I would like to openly respond to some of the concerns I have heard to hopefully convince more people to seek out screening.
I cannot afford it.
Screening for lung cancer with a yearly CT scan is covered by many insurance plans, including Medicare and Medicaid. If you are 50 or older and smoked or still smoke, ask your doctor if you are eligible for lung cancer screening.
I am not ready to quit smoking.
Although there are great benefits to quitting tobacco smoking, quitting is not mandatory to be screened for lung cancer.
I have not smoked in years, so I would have already gotten cancer by now.
Lung cancer can show up many years after you quit.
I feel fine; I don’t have any symptoms.
Screening works by finding cancers early. If you wait until you have symptoms, the cancer is much more likely to have already spread.
The treatment is worse than the cancer.
Newer treatments are less toxic and less invasive with fewer side effects and complications. Importantly, screening works by finding early cancers, which are generally easier to treat for patients.
I am claustrophobic.
The CT scan is completely open and only takes a few minutes.
I don’t have a ride.
Many screening programs can help arrange transportation.
If they find something, there is nothing they can do anyway.
Screening works by finding more curable cancers.
My primary care provider never brought up screening for lung cancer.
In medicine, ‘no news’ is not always ‘good news.’ Just ask.
I smoked, so whatever happens, I did it to myself.
Nobody deserves to die of lung cancer. Nobody. The question is not about blame, but accountability. If you made the choice to smoke, then you need to be accountable to the people who count on you.
I am scared.
Nobody wants to look for something they don’t want to find. I am terrified every time I get a colonoscopy. I don’t want to become a cancer patient, and I don’t want to stop my life to be treated. The reality is, cancer is a common experience, and about 40% of us will get some form of cancer in our lifetime. Why not catch it early, when the treatment is easier, and a cure is most likely?
The author Scott Turow once wrote that ‘courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to proceed in spite of it.’
Be brave for your family and friends; for those you help, and for those who could use your help. Be brave for those who already were, and lost, or for those who wished they had another chance to be.
If you are 50 or older and smoked or still smoke, ask your doctor about lung cancer screening.
Daniel Boffa, MD, MBA, FACS, is Chair of the American College of Surgeons Commission on Cancer Quality Assurance and Data Committee. He is also a professor of thoracic surgery, Division Chief of thoracic surgery, and Clinical Director of the Center for Thoracic Cancers at the Yale School of Medicine. Committed to increasing the survival rate of cancer patients, Dr. Boffa’s clinical research focuses on early detection of lung cancer and preventing tumor metastasis.