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A lung cancer screening that could save a smoker's life

11/19/2018

Lung cancer is a leading cause of cancer death in the United States and worldwide. Experts agree that lung cancer prevention for high risk patients starts with lung cancer screening. In fact, studies show 20 percent fewer deaths among heavy smokers who were screened.

That’s why Wellforce thoracic specialists at Tufts Medical Center, Tufts MC Cancer Center in StonehamLowell General Hospital, MelroseWakefield Hospital and Lawrence Memorial Hospital of Medford are reminding people who are at high risk for lung cancer to consider getting screened for the disease. The partners recently teamed up to develop the Comprehensive Thoracic Program providing patients with high-quality multidisciplinary care for lung cancer and other thoracic diseases in the convenience of their community. Lung cancer screenings and nearly all the specialized care provided for thoracic patients at Tufts MC are offered at all locations, allowing patients to be treated close to home.

Lung cancer doesn’t usually cause symptoms until the cancer is advanced, so if the disease is caught early enough by the screening, when it is most treatable, a person’s chances of surviving greatly increases. A low-dose CT scan is the simple, quick and noninvasive screening test for heavy smokers, and it is highly effective in catching the disease and other lung abnormalities early. 

“If a scanning test reveals a suspicious lung nodule, we work closely with each patient and our team in that location to determine the next step,” explains Laurence H. Brinkerhoff, MD, Chief of Thoracic Surgery at Tufts MC, who also sees patients at Lowell General Hospital as part of the Comprehensive Thoracic Program. “When a lung cancer is diagnosed early and before it spreads, surgery to remove it without undergoing chemotherapy after the procedure may even be an option for a patient.” 

Lung nodules are spots found on an imaging test that are usually no more than an inch in diameter. They are not always cancerous and do not always need to be removed. Sometimes a patient who has a suspicious lung nodule will be closely monitored by the team, which may mean more frequent screenings.

“Screening tests find lung nodules in about half of people who are over the age of 50 and are current or former heavy smokers,” says Interventional Pulmonologist Maher Tabba, MD, Chief of the Section of Interventional Pulmonology and Thoracic Oncology at Tufts MC, who also sees patients at the Tufts MC Cancer Center in Stoneham in partnership with MelroseWakefield Healthcare. “Using minimally invasive techniques, such as a bronchoscopy combined with a biopsy, we can diagnose if the nodule is cancerous and determine the stage of the cancer.”

The interventional pulmonologists work closely with thoracic surgeons, and a team that also includes radiologists and oncologists, to develop a care plan for patients diagnosed with lung cancer and other serious lung diseases. Primary care providers often refer their high risk patients for lung cancer screenings. Based on the results, the next step might be to see an interventional pulmonologist, a thoracic surgeon or to return at a later date for another screening.

If you are or were a heavy smoker, speak with your medical provider to determine if you are at risk for developing lung cancer and if lung cancer screening is right for you. 

While lung cancer screening is highly effective in catching the disease early, quitting smoking is the most effective way to reduce the risk of lung cancer developing. Patients who smoke should be strongly counseled to quit smoking. Massachusetts residents can call the smokers’ helpline at 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669) for free one-on-one support and information about how to quit.