Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States, accounting for almost 25% of all cancer deaths. Despite advances in treatment and successful efforts to reduce smoking, the disease kills more than 350 people in the U.S. each day — but it doesn’t have to be this way.
If all people who should be screened for lung cancer got screened, we can save tens of thousands of lives, and tens of millions of dollars. Lung cancer is so deadly because it is most often diagnosed at an advanced stage when treatment options are limited, and outcomes are poor.
Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University has partnered with more than 50 cancer organizations to issue a call to action urging individuals, providers and insurers to increase access to and utilization of low-dose computed tomography (CT) scans for those at high risk for lung cancer. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends annual screening for people ages 50-80 who have smoked for at least 20 years. However, only 5.7% of eligible Americans were screened for lung cancer before the COVID-19 pandemic — compared to screening rates for breast, cervical and colon cancers that hover between 60% and 80%. And we know screening rates have decreased for all cancers due to the pandemic.
"Screening for lung cancer increases the chances of detecting lung cancers at an earlier, more curable stage," says Suresh Ramalingam, MD, executive director of Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University and a lung cancer expert. "The Lung CT Screening Program at Emory Healthcare is fully equipped to help patients. With our team of specialists in radiology, oncology, cardiothoracic surgery and pulmonology, we are able to provide the entire continuum of care for each patient, including the latest clinical trials and advanced therapies."
The joint call to action also aligns with and supports the national Cancer Moonshot initiative, which aims to reduce cancer deaths by 50% over the next 25 years. Lung cancer screening is one easy way to help reach that goal. This call to action provides guidance for national support, including public funding and health policy changes needed to significantly improve lung cancer screening participation.
Two major barriers to screening are coverage and access. While low-dose CT screening for lung cancer is covered by Medicare and most private insurance plans, the pre-authorization process can delay the procedure by several days and place an unnecessary burden on community providers. Additionally, a recent study by the American Cancer Society found that at least 5% of those eligible for low-dose CT scans live more than 40 miles from a screening facility — and that percentage jumps to nearly 25% for screening-eligible individuals in rural areas.
Together, we have an unprecedented opportunity to drive down cancer deaths by taking advantage of a tool that is effective, noninvasive and inexpensive. We urge people to talk to their physicians about lung cancer screening or to take advantage of resources, such as the American Lung Association's screening eligibility quiz or GO2 Foundation for Lung Cancer state-by-state screening center directory.