HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - Lung cancer can be a tough cancer to fight. By the time it’s caught, when a person starts having symptoms, it’s usually too late to have a favorable outcome. For most people at high risk, the only option until now has been a chest x-ray. But now there’s a new screening tool that is showing great promise. It can detect lung cancer at stage one.
According to Dr. Marshall Schreeder at Clearview Cancer Institute, “Clearly the people who get the yearly low dose CT scan have a better mortality, a better survival, because we pick up cancer of the lung at a very curable stage.”
“The problem with cancer of the lung is typically when it’s picked up, with symptoms, it’s not curable," he adds.
In a national lung cancer screening trial, that meant those who got the low dose CT scan had a 20 percent lower risk of dying from lung cancer than those who got standard chest x-rays.
Lung cancer kills more people every year than breast, colon, and prostate cancer combined. Most lung cancers are caused by smoking, yet there are still more than 46 million Americans smoking cigarettes. For those who are lucky enough to quit, many still have nagging fears, even years later, whether they quit in time to prevent lifelong damage or disease.
What you may not realize is one of those people is WHNT News 19’s Jerry Hayes.
"I smoked because I was addicted to nicotine," Jerry says. "I was addicted to a substance, and that’s the only reason I smoked because I didn’t enjoy it."
Jerry smoked for almost 35 years. He tried a few times unsuccessfully to stop. But it was his daughter who finally gave him the inspiration to see it through.
“What really made me quit was one of them said something to me about walking her down the aisle. And I thought, ‘Whew! I don’t want to miss that.’ So, I quit," he said.
It’s been nearly six years since Jerry had his last cigarette. But he still wonders if he quit in time.
“I think like anybody who has quit smoking, you just want to make sure. In the back of your mind, you may get a cough during the winter or something and it stays with you for two or three months, and you wonder, oh geez, I wonder what’s causing this. How are my lungs?”
Jerry decided to get the new low dose CT scan.
“If there is something going on, I’d rather find it now than find it down the road three or four years from now when it’s too late," he said.
Jerry met all the criteria to get the test. He’s between the ages of 55 and 74 and smoked at least a pack a day for 30 years.
The scan takes only a few minutes. It can pick up nodules as small as four millimeters, when it’s still possible to stop the cancer with surgery, instead of needing chemo or radiation. The scan is non-invasive and relatively safe.
According to Dr. Schreeder, the radiation you get from one scan is like living in Denver for one month. Because of Denver's elevation, it is closer to the sun.
Perhaps the hardest part of the scan is waiting for the radiologist to read the results. Jerry went for his consultation the next day.
Dr. Schreeder gave him the news. “Everything really looks pretty good. We’re seeing some little spots.” He went on to say, “We were lucky enough to find an old CT scan on you from several years ago and in fact, none of this has changed.”
So for Jerry, the news is good. He has calcified granulomas which are benign. The granulomas are most likely caused by histoplasmosis, a fungal infection common in the Tennessee Valley. But there’s no sign of cancer. Dr. Schreeder recommends Jerry gets a low dose CT scan every year to look for changes from his baseline scan.
Dr. Schreeder says this scan is the only realistic way to pick up lung cancer at stage one, before symptoms begin.
“If you catch cancer of the lung in a stage one disease you’ve got a 90 percent cure rate. If you catch it stage two-four you’ve got virtually a zero percent cure rate.”
Jerry can now breathe a sigh of relief. Dr. Schreeder says Jerry already did the best thing he can do for himself, which was to stop smoking. Now Jerry is sharing the message to help others avoid possible heartache.
“Don’t start. Don’t ever take that first puff, because nicotine is an addictive substance," Jerry said. "It’s like alcohol or anything else. It can wind up controlling your life if you don’t control it. And the best way to control nicotine addiction is don’t ever get it in your system.”
To quit, Jerry tried the patches, but they didn't work for him. Jerry's doctor wrote him a prescription for the drug Chantix, and that did the trick.
Most health insurance plans cover the low dose CT scan. But even if your plan doesn’t, places like CCI are making it pretty reasonable to pay out-of-pocket at about $220.
Something else to know about the scan is the possibility of false positives. According to Michelle Brown, Chief Operations Officer at CCI, “You can have up to 20 percent false positives. So far to date, we have not had any.”
Clearview Cancer Institute recommends you get the screening if you are at high risk. That includes anyone who is a current or former smoker age 55-74 and if you have a 30 pack-year history. Your packs per year history is equal to the number of packs you smoked per day multiplied by the years you have smoked. So if you smoked one pack a day for 30 years, you would have a 30 pack-year history.
You are also considered high risk if you are older than age 50 with a 20 pack-year history or more and have a history of radon or occupational carcinogen exposure (asbestos, arsenic, diesel fumes, etc.), have a family history of lung cancer, COPD or pulmonary fibrosis, or a personal history of cancer or lymphoma. If you quit smoking less than 15 years ago you are still considered high risk.