The importance of early screening for lung cancer

People who are age 50 and above and who smoked at least a pack of cigarettes a day for 20 years are eligible for low-dose CT scans to check for lung cancer, a disease that was once considered a fatal diagnosis but is now much more treatable.

But only 6% of eligible New York residents currently get a lung cancer screening test completed each year, slightly higher than the national rate of 5.7%. Some 6.4 million people nationally are eligible for the screening.

To help increase the number of people with access to low-dose CT scans for lung cancer, Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center soon will be rolling out Eddy, or Early Detection Driven to You, a mobile screening van that will travel the state to bring lung cancer screening to neighborhoods where the test can be hard to find.

Eddy is state-of-the-art lung cancer screening technology on wheels, funded by New York State, to help more people gain access to a quick, pain-free test that can help save lives. Detecting lung cancer early means a greater number of treatment options are available to a patient.

More than 36% of people living in counties with the highest rate of lung cancer deaths have to drive at least an hour for this kind of test. With Eddy, Roswell Park hopes to make it easier for people across the state to have access to this important test. Early detection of lung cancer through the use of low-dose CT scans can reduce the risk of dying from lung cancer by 20-25%, when compared to using chest x-rays to identify the disease.

Lung cancer is responsible for more cancer-related deaths each year than breast, prostate and pancreatic cancer combined, but the awareness of early detection methods for lung cancer are not as well known, nor is it talked about as often in general as those other cancers. Some 80% of women get annual mammograms to screen for breast cancer, and 50% of people eligible receive colorectal cancer screenings, by comparison.

When a U.S. task force changed the guidelines on who is eligible for low-dose CT scans, in 2021, it expanded eligibility to large groups of people who previously were not able to get the test. More Black people in general, and women who are younger and smoked less overall, are now eligible for the scans. These are the same groups of people who are at risk of developing lung cancer with even less exposure to tobacco than the previous threshold for testing.

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“Women and Black people are at a higher risk of lung cancer at lower levels of smoking, compared to Caucasian men,” says Mary Reid, MSPH, PhD, Chief of Cancer Screening, Survivorship and Mentorship at Roswell Park. “Among smokers who smoke for 30 or 40 years, all groups of people have a similar risk of lung cancer. But among those who smoke for 20 years, Black men have a higher risk of getting lung cancer compared to white men. Women make up half the total cases of lung cancer. With the lower age and smoking exposure requirements, more women will be screened.

“By lowering the age recommendation and lowering the threshold of smoking exposure, we are able to screen more people in these groups and pick up more of their cancers earlier.”

When it’s up and running, Eddy will travel across New York State, starting in the eight counties of Western New York, to help provide better access to these life-saving screenings.