This year, national Lung Cancer Awareness Month started off with the announcement of an updated recommendation for lung cancer screening from the American Cancer Society (ACS). ACS guidelines, last updated in 2013, previously recommended annual screening for people from age 55 to 74; a 30-plus pack-year history; and less than or up to 15 years since quitting. New guidelines have changed these respective parameters to 50 to 80 years of age; a 20-plus pack-year history; and no minimum on years since quitting.
At Maimonides Cancer Center, our Lung Cancer Screening Program is celebrating 10 years in service of our community. As part of Brooklyn’s first full-service cancer center, our lung cancer specialists have been ahead of the curve since the program opened its doors in 2013. The program has already been following these updated guidelines for several years, as recommended by the American College of Radiology and United States Preventive Services Task Force for their potential to save thousands more lives nationally each year.
“Since opening, we’ve done over 5,000 low-dose CT scans for lung screening,” said Jason Shaw, MD, Director of the Maimonides Lung Cancer Screening Program and Director of General Thoracic Surgery at Maimonides Medical Center. “We’ve found over 70 lung cancers, with the majority of them in the early stage.”
Lack of Early Screening Drives Preventable High Lung Cancer Mortality Rates
Lung cancer is still the number-one cause of cancer-related death in the United States. With an average five-year survival rate of just 18%, it kills more people each year than breast cancer, prostate cancer, and colon cancer combined. When diagnosed in its early stages, however, lung cancer is highly treatable. For localized cases which have not yet metastasized, survival rates are over 55%, but only about 16% of lung cancer patients are diagnosed at an early stage.
The popularization of screening for breast cancer and colon cancer has saved many lives. According to the most recent data, roughly 70 to 75% of eligible adults in the U.S. have been screened within the recommended timeline for these diseases, with consideration for individual level of risk. In contrast, fewer than 10% of those eligible for annual lung cancer screenings have been screened in the past year, despite the proven lifesaving benefits of this simple, noninvasive method.
“Waiting for symptoms to develop is not ideal, and unfortunately that is how the vast majority of patients present, and how we find out, because they’re not feeling good,” said Dr. Shaw.
Screening Methods are Better Than Ever
Low-dose CT screening is a simple, noninvasive procedure that saves lives. In just the decade since the Maimonides Lung Cancer Screening Program started, these scans have become more sophisticated, and doctors have a better understanding of how to interpret the results, in terms of what to examine further and what is not concerning.
“In the same way that mammography has gotten better and better with years, the same thing is happening with using low-dose CT scans for lung screening,” said Dr. Shaw. “This is important because it allows doctors and caregivers to know when we need to take action or when we can reassure people that what we are seeing is not dangerous and we can observe it with caution.
“On the positive side, what that means for patients is less anxiety and more of a sense of security. Hopefully with these advances, more people will get these screenings and we’ll save more lives because it takes away a lot of the fear factor.”
Less Fear, Less Stigma Means More Lives Saved From Lung Cancer
What Maimonides clinicians want those at risk of lung cancer to know is this: while it’s a serious diagnosis to receive, it is not nearly as scary as it used to be. With many more treatment options available now than even a decade ago, and the availability of early screening, patients diagnosed with lung cancer are having better outcomes than ever before.
New treatments for lung cancer are constantly becoming available, and at Maimonides, our lung cancer teams are utilizing multidisciplinary approaches for lung cancers from early stage to advanced. Those include state-of-the-art minimally invasive and robotic surgery, focused radiation therapy, and newer therapies including immunotherapy and targeted therapies.
“Our goal is to turn lung cancer from what is right now – the biggest killer – into a disease you can live with for years,” said Dr. Shaw. “With these new treatments, we’re seeing longer-term survivors, and at times, many patients’ cancer effectively goes into remission.”
Patients who may put off screening due to fear of finding the disease, fear of judgment, or lack of medical insurance coverage can be assured that Maimonides oncologists deliver the most comprehensive care possible for every patient. As part of the first fully accredited cancer center in Brooklyn, our cancer specialists are some of New York’s top experts. The team has been caring for our community for years, with the goal of helping more people survive cancer, even in the most challenging areas of oncology.
“Effectively we are destigmatizing lung cancer, taking the fear out of it, taking away the stigma that it’s a self-inflicted disease, so people will get treatment they need so they can live longer and live better,” said Dr Shaw. “Here in Brooklyn, we see people from all different ages and backgrounds with lung cancer, but what’s important to know is that people are living longer and better with their disease compared to 20 or even 10 years ago – much better, based on data across the country. Lung cancer mortality is going down.”
To schedule or refer a patient for lung cancer screening at Maimonides, call (718) 283-2059 or sign up online. For our Rapid Assessment Service for patients with concerning imaging results or symptoms, call (718) 765-2752.