Early detection is helping save the lives of high-risk current and former smokers

Early detection is helping save the lives of high-risk current and former smokers

Aleks Kang, for American Lung Association’s LUNG FORCE InitiativePublished 3:11 p.m. ET Nov. 17, 2017

The survival rate is 5 times higher when lung cancer is detected early.

Frank Flahive

(Photo: American Lung Association’s LUNG FORCE Initiative)


When Sandy Gersdorf’s dad started smoking, no one knew that smoking-related diseases would claim over 480,000 lives a year. In 1983, when Sandy’s father was diagnosed with lung cancer, the low-dose CT scan was decades away from being a method of early-detection. In fact, the low-dose CT scan is the only lung cancer screening tool proven to reduce deaths from lung cancer.

Because Sandy was raised in a family of smokers, and was a smoker herself, it led her to ask her doctor about lung cancer screening options.

Says Sandy, “Last year my doctor told me about the CT scan that would now replace the X-ray and he said that it had a much better success rate in detecting lung cancer early.”

Being high-risk herself, she now gets low-dose CT scans every year.  So far, her scans have been clear.

Early detection is life or death

When lung cancer is detected early, it’s more likely to be curable. Those considered at high risk who get annual screenings have a better chance of survival if they are diagnosed before the cancer spreads. Frank Flahive was one of those people, and the low-dose CT scan most likely saved his life.

While signing up for a golf tournament at his local senior center, Frank saw a sign promoting low-dose CT scans at his local hospital that read: “Are you a smoker or did you smoke? Did you smoke more than a pack a day? Did you smoke for 30 years? Did you quit 15 or fewer years ago?”

Frank says, “I saw that sign and told myself that I could answer yes to all of those questions.”

Frank’s scan revealed Frank’s scan revealed a tumor that was confirmed to be cancer through a biopsy, and quickly removed through surgery.

As he recalls, “Since this all happened during surgery, by the time I realized that I had cancer, I was a cancer survivor. I never had the anxiety that some people have, and that is the benefit of the CT scan — early detection.”

Who is at high risk for lung cancer?

Anyone age 55-80 who is a current smoker or quit smoking in the last 15 years and smoked the equivalent of 30 “pack years” or more (1 pack a day for 30 years, 2 packs for 15 years, or any combination of years and packs that equals 30) is considered high risk and eligible for screening.

While most Americans are aware of the link between smoking and lung cancer, former smokers may underestimate their own risk of being diagnosed with the disease.

Kathy Leiser hadn’t considered the possibility that she would be diagnosed with lung cancer the day she heard a public radio announcement request for subjects for a lung cancer screening trial in Nashville.

“At the time I heard the announcement, I had some shortness of breath but didn’t have any symptoms that to me indicated a disease”, recalls Kathy. “I had a chest X-ray the year before, but nothing was noticed in it, and I had no reason to suspect a lung problem.”

But though the chest X-ray showed no anomaly, the low-dose CT scan detected a malignant 2.8-cm nodule in the upper lobe of her right lung. It was because of that early detection that eventually made her cancer free.

Kathy Leiser

Kathy Leiser (Photo: American Lung Association’s LUNG FORCE Initiative)

“A lung CT scan saved my life before I had symptoms of disease. I feel unbelievably fortunate to have found my cancer so early,” says Kathy, thankfully. Now, Kathy gets the recommended annual screening, and celebrated her five-year cancer-free anniversary in 2016.

Low-dose CT scan could save lives

The low-dose CT scan has a lifesaving impact on high-risk lung cancer candidates every day — Frank, Kathy and Sandy are just three. This disease claims 426 lives a day, 18 deaths each hour, 1 death every 3.5 minutes, and early detection is your best defense against this disease — especially if you’re high risk. Because lung cancer tends to be asymptomatic until the late stages of the disease, early detection offers the best chance of survival, so talk to your doctor or take the Saved By the Scan Quiz to find out if you should get screened.

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