Early screening for lung cancer could mean the difference between a diagnosis and a death sentence.

(Photo Courtesy of the American Cancer Society via Getty Images)

According to a cardio thoracic surgeon with CentraState Medical Center in Freehold, the availability and access to this type of screening has improved greatly over the last few years, putting it almost on par with other preventative measures such as mammograms and colonoscopies.

Data from the state Department of Health show lung cancer was the leading cause of cancer mortality among men and women in 2013. It was also the second-most diagnosed cancer behind prostate cancer in men and breast cancer in women.

Dr. Robert Caccavale, a medical advisor at CentraState's Comprehensive Lung Care Program, said CT scanning has been found to work better than a traditional X-ray at spotting cancerous tumors in the early stages of lung cancer. Doing so means the cancer would be easier to treat and the likelihood of a positive outcome is greater.

Lung cancer usually is not diagnosed until symptoms such as chronic coughing, chest pain or difficulty breathing pop up. And by then, the cancer has often already spread to other parts of the body.

"There's usually less than a 15 percent chance of being alive in five years when cancer's found that way," Caccavale said, noting the chances range up to 60 percent for those who elect for an early screening or discover nodules while getting medical treatment for another issue.

Caccavale said a yearly low-dose CT scan, which is quick, painless and non-invasive, is now covered by most private insurance plans and Medicare for certain high-risk individuals.

According to government standards, CT screening for lung cancer is highly recommended if:

  • You're between 55 and 77 years old
  • You don't have signs or symptoms of lung cancer
  • You've smoked at least one pack of cigarettes a day for 30 years or at least two packs a day for 15 years
  • You currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years

Citing a national "epidemic level" of lung cancer, Caccavale said smoking is linked to the vast majority of cases. But of the hundreds of thousands people diagnosed with lung cancer each year, 15 to 20 percent never smoked.

"The hope is that these people also will have the opportunity to get screening and have it covered through their insurance," he said.

Hesitancy to get screened is sometimes due to a person's fear of what may be found, Caccavale noted. CT scanning is so sensitive, he said, that it discovers many nodules in the lungs that turn out to be nothing dangerous.

"If it does turn out to be something, though, the next step is to understand how lucky they are to have found something while we can treat it better," he said.

Caccavale said the medical field has learned to perform surgeries more efficiently for more patients, and if surgery is not an option, much-improved chemotherapeutic agents, radiation treatments and other ablative techniques are available.

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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.

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