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Lung cancer scans advised for old smokers, ex-smokers

POSTED: November 30, 2013 11:22 p.m.

When Kay Lord accidently flipped her car over, it ended up saving her life.

“It was a miracle,” Lord said. “I think it was divine intervention.”

The plant in the back seat of the 73-year-old’s car in a way helped cause the accident in July. Lord, a Dahlonega resident, and her husband were in the process of moving their son home from Alabama.

Lord’s car was first in a caravan, with her son and husband following her. She reached back to steady her son’s plant in the backseat and flipped her car.

Lord was checked out in the emergency room and had her neck, chest and pelvis X-rayed. The hospital called her the next day saying they found a spot on her lung.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society. Preventive medical care can save or prolong lives if doctors are able to find and treat illnesses and diseases before they spread or move into more advanced stages. An independent task force made a draft recommendation earlier this year calling for annual screenings for patients at high risk for lung cancer.

Joey West, a doctor with the Northeast Georgia Diagnostic Clinic who specializes in lung disorders, said he will recommend scans to his patients, but warns that the procedure will likely be an out-of-pocket expense.

A CT scan is a much more detailed look inside a person’s body than an X-ray, West said. It’s a computerized process of taking data from several X-ray images and converting them into a picture. It can detect much smaller tumors and other potential problems.

“There’s never been a great screening tool to look for lung cancer,” he said. “...80 percent of the time when people show up to see me with symptoms, their lung cancer already advanced beyond surgery.”

Lord quit smoking in 1996, kicking a 40-year habit. She felt perfectly healthy, not even a cough. Now her past was back to haunt her.

“I was just really shocked,” she said.

Smoking is the biggest risk factor for developing lung cancer, according to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, resulting in about 85 percent of lung cancers nationwide. The risk also increases with age, with cancer most often occurring in people 55 and older. The task force is an independent volunteer panel of national experts working to improve the health of all Americans.

The task force issued a draft recommendation in July that people 55 to 80 years old that have a 30 “pack year” history of smoking get annual low radiation CT scans. A pack year means someone smoked a cigarette pack a day for 30 years. Smoking two packs a day for 15 years equals the same amount of time.

Many people with lung cancer are former smokers, but there’s also many that never smoked at all. Lung cancer in nonsmokers can be caused by several types of air toxins, including radioactive gas, secondhand smoke, air pollution, asbestos and diesel exhaust.

Lord’s primary care physician told her that without the accident, no one would have seen the early stage lung cancer developing. It was stage one, which means it hadn’t spread to other parts of her body. She had surgery in August and today is cancer-free.

West said rates of smoking are trending downward, but one of the problems he sees is the continued tobacco use in less-educated, low-income populations. It takes an average of seven attempts to quit smoking and the one-year success rate for most stop-smoking medication is about 30 percent.

“There’s no magic bullet out there,” he said. “People quite frankly get depressed that they can’t quit when they want to quit. They just don’t realize it’s an addictive drug.”

There’s not a great stop smoking counseling program in the region because it’s not reimbursed well by health insurance plans or the government, West said. The recommended scans, which can cost $200-$500, are likely not covered either.

“I can recommend it,” he said. “It’s up to (patients) to decide if they want to pay the price.”


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