Saving Lives with Improved Access to Lung Cancer Screening

Former Chief of Pulmonary Medicine at Roswell Park Cancer Institute
Monday, November 17, 2014 - 9:58am

On November 10, 2014 the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued a proposed decision to begin covering the cost of a promising type of lung cancer screening, low-dose CT scans, for patients at high risk of the disease. This is welcome news and is likely to improve lung cancer survival rates for many Americans.

For years, oncologists and cancer researchers have been searching for new, more effective ways to diagnose lung cancer. Because of its location in the body, tumors of the lung are difficult to detect in the early stages. As a result, approximately 85 percent of lung cancer cases are diagnosed in the late stages, when they are harder to treat. Survival rates for these cases are very poor.

While it has been widely accepted that CT scans are far more effective for finding lung cancer than chest X-rays, older CT technology gave the patient doses of radiation that were too large to be considered safe for this purpose. Thankfully, new CT scanning technology has been developed that gives a small, safer dose of radiation.

In 2011, the National Cancer Institute released the findings from the National Lung Screening Trial, a large-scale study using low-dose CT scans to screen for lung cancer. In the study of 50,000 patients, half were screened using low-dose CT scans, and half were screened with chest X-rays. The low-dose CT scans were so much more effective at diagnosing lung cancer in the early stages that the patients in that group had a 20 percent reduction in mortality rates.

At Roswell Park, our Lung Cancer Screening Program is designed to detect lung cancer at its earliest, most curable stages by screening and monitoring the people most likely to develop the disease, especially smokers. The screening program offers patients the benefit of access to an experienced multidisciplinary team, including expert radiation oncologists, medical oncologists, interventional pulmonologists, and surgeons, so patients can rest assured that professionals with years of experience are on their side throughout the diagnostic and treatment process.

Those at high risk for lung cancer include those who:

  • Are at least 55 years old
  • Have smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for about 30 years (or the equivalent, such as two packs a day for 15 years)
  • Are currently smoking or have quit in the last 15 years

We look forward to seeing the impact of the CMS announcement on lung cancer survival rates across the country. According to one recent analysis, if all eligible Medicare beneficiaries had been screened and treated consistently from the age of 55, approximately 358,134 additional individuals with current or past lung cancer would be alive in 2014. By shifting the stage of lung cancer at the time of diagnosis to an early stage, survival of patients with lung cancer is expected to improve.