INDIANAPOLIS — It’s Lung Cancer Awareness Month, and local doctors are hoping to break the stigmas surrounding the disease.
Statistics from the Lung Cancer Research Foundation show it’s the leading cause of cancer deaths in the world. While the number of new cases diagnosed is falling, local experts say there’s still work to do in areas of prevention and education.
Dr. Nasser Hanna of IU Simon Cancer Center, who is also a professor of medicine at IU School of Medicine, says a big part of it is cracking down on smoking.
“If you don’t smoke, don’t start ever,” he said, “and if you do smoke, please stop now. It is not too late to quit smoking.”
Statistics from the Lung Cancer Research Foundation puts smoking behind 80% of cancer deaths.
Along with more efforts on smoking prevention and cessation, Hanna says lung screenings can reduce the risk of death by 20%. However, he says few people take advantage.
“In contrast, 70% of women who are eligible for mammograms get them, and 70% of men and women who are eligible for colonoscopies get them, but only 10% of people that are eligible for a lung scan get them.”
According to the CDC, it’s a low-dose CT scan (LDCT). Using low amounts of radiation, it provides detailed images of your lungs in a matter of a minutes. The CDC also says it’s a painless procedure.
Hanna says screenings are especially important for those 50-80 years old with a history of smoking over the years or about “20 pack years”.
“So that could be one pack per day for 20 years. It could be half a pack a day for 40 years. Something that equates to 20 pack years or more,” said Hanna.
“This is a Grade B recommendation from the U.S. Preventative Task Force, which means if you’re on Medicare, or if you’re on Medicaid, that screening study should be provided to you without any cost sharing. It is covered by the Affordable Care Act,” he said. “So I would encourage you to discuss that with your physician.”
While numbers show smoking attributes to most cancer deaths, 20% come from those who never smoked.
Hanna says that can come from a variety of other factors, including exposure to secondhand smoke or other cancer causing chemicals and particles.
“Secondhand smoke in a chronic way is an absolute major risk factor not only for lung cancer, but other diseases, including chronic lung disease,” he said. “Working around asbestos, working along in construction, working in certain factories, people who work on brake pads, people who work in old buildings, people who work underground where radon levels are much higher. All of these are risk factors.”
However, Hanna says some people will still be diagnosed with lung cancer despite not having the identifiable risk factors.
“We have discovered a number of reasons why people get lung cancer at the DNA level,” he said. “This is not something that they inherit in most cases, and we’re trying to understand what causes those triggers in these key genes that lead a normal cell to become a cancer cell.”
Hanna says it’s also another reason why people should consider supporting research. Numbers from the Lung Cancer Research Foundation also show the disease gets less funding in comparison to other cancers despite its high death rates.
“Lung cancer is such a complex disease that when you study lung cancer, when you support research for lung cancer, you really truly are studying the fundamentals that underlie most cancers,” he said.
If you’re diagnosed, Hanna also recommends taking part in clinical studies and trials. That way, you can get access to developing treatments.
“The better therapies of tomorrow are already available to you today on a clinical trial,” he added.
For resources on quitting smoking or battling lung cancer, the IU Simon Cancer Center offers support through End Lung Cancer Now.