I-TEAM: New guidelines could double the number eligible for lung cancer screenings

Published: Apr. 1, 2021 at 6:04 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - New information tonight from the I-Team could save your life or the life of someone you know.

A federal task force is rewriting the rulebook when it comes to the number one cancer killer in our area. It’s such a big deal that the head of lung screening at AU reached out to our I-Team to make sure you get this important medical memo.

Lung Cancer Survival Rate Map
Lung Cancer Survival Rate Map(Source: The American Lung Association)

This map shows survival rates for lung cancer, and Georgia and South Carolina’s shade of blue isn’t good news. It means fewer than 20 percent of our friends and family diagnosed with lung cancer here in our area will live, but hopefully, that’s about to change.

At first glance, it seems like relatively minor changes: just five years of age and a shorter pack-a-day smoking habit, but Dr. Richard Lee says they’re actually monumental.

“Maybe doubles the number of people who are eligible for lung cancer screening,” he said. “The estimates are that it will double the number of people eligible for lung cancer screening.”

Each year, more people die of lung cancer than colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined. This year alone, the American Cancer Society estimates there will be more than 235,000 new cases of lung cancer in the U.S. and more than 131,000 deaths.

On a national scale, one in 15 men will develop lung cancer. For women, it’s one in 17.

The I-Team found the outlook is especially grim in the two-state with both Georgia and South Carolina ranking below average for lung cancer survival rates.

Georgia is also below average when it comes to surgical treatment and early diagnosis which Dr. Lee says makes all the difference.

“It saves lives. My own dad died of lung cancer. He was a smoker. He quit for maybe 10 years. Not a cigarette. Did great, but, you know, he would have been eligible for screening. He would be alive today if we had lung cancer screening,” he said.

“As a doctor – when these recommendations came out -- and as a son, you obviously had a reaction to this,” I said.

“It’s a cause for celebration,” Dr. Lee said.

A celebration for a cancer that doesn’t seem to get much attention otherwise, even though lung cancer makes up 25 percent, one fourth, of all cancer deaths.

Take research money for example:

A study at Northwestern compared cancer types and research money from nonprofits. Breast cancer tops the list with $460 million from nonprofits. That same year, Lung cancer research netted only a fifth of that, even though it’s the deadliest.

That’s likely because of awareness. Breast Cancer and its pink ribbons have a lot of that, but you likely don’t know what color ribbon represents lung cancer?

I admit – I had to look it up.

That ribbon is white, and it also carries a stigma.

“80 percent. 80 percent of all lung cancer is related to smoking,” Dr. Lee said.

Which has increased during the pandemic. Data from the U.S. Treasury Department shows cigarette sales increased 1 percent in 2020 after dropping 4 to 5 percent each year since 2015.

Still, one-fifth of those with lung cancer have never picked up a cigarette. And, it seems, lung cancer discriminates.

“They are more likely to occur in black men, and in white women, and they’re much more fatal in women than men,” Dr. Lee said.

When it comes to our area, the I-Team found black people in South Carolina are least likely to receive treatment. Black people in Georgia are the least likely to be diagnosed early.

Which brings us back to the new screening requirements.

“This is a tremendous step forward,” Dr. Lee said. “Likely we’ll save up to 60,000 Americans each year and up to 1800 Georgians a year.”

And while these new screening requirements came too late to save Dr. Lee’s father, they may be right on time to save someone you love.

The screenings should also be covered by insurance, but smokers are less likely to have insurance and often don’t have full Medicaid coverage.

The good news is that Dr. Lee says AU Health offers free lung cancer screenings. You can find more information about those screenings by clicking here.

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