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Lung cancer remains one of the most prevalent cancers in the United States, and unfortunately, it’s also one of the deadliest types. That’s because it’s often undiagnosed until later stages when it spreads and becomes more difficult to treat. Many smokers believe that if they don’t have any symptoms, they’re healthy. But the truth is that signs of lung cancer aren’t noticeable until the disease has progressed to a later stage when it is harder to treat.
The good news is that lung cancer screening is available and covered by insurance for a wide range of patients who currently smoke or have a history of smoking. And, regular screening using low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) is an effective way to detect early signs of cancer when there are many treatment options. When caught in earlier stages, lung cancer is often curable, allowing many patients to go on to live full and healthy lives. Learn more below about how lung cancer staging can affect treatment outcomes.
The lower the cancer stage, the more easily it can be treated.
“Staging” describes the size of a tumor and whether it has spread to other parts of the body. It’s an important part of a cancer diagnosis because it affects what treatment options will be most successful. Staging can also help your doctors predict how your tumor will respond to treatment, although every person’s experience will be different.
Lung cancer stages for non-small cell lung cancer, the most common type, range from one to four. Stage one is the least invasive while stage four is the most advanced.
A stage one lung cancer diagnosis means that the tumor is small and is contained to one lung. It has not spread (metastasized) to nearby lymph nodes or other organs within the body. This stage proves that a lung cancer diagnosis doesn’t have to be serious when it’s caught early. In fact, survival rates are the highest at this localized stage, with the five-year survival rate currently hovering around 65 percent, according to the American Cancer Society.
Treatment will vary by individual, but at this stage, many patients are candidates for surgery. Others may get radiation instead, benefiting from highly targeted stereotactic radiation or proton beam therapy.
Stage two tumors are still relatively small and contained to the lungs. However, some of these tumors may have spread to nearby lymph nodes on the same side of the chest. Like stage one diagnoses, these tumors are often treatable with surgery if patients are considered to be in overall good health. Some patients may also undergo chemotherapy and/or immunotherapy, a new, advanced category of cancer treatments that may offer effective treatment options through clinical trials.
At stage three, tumors are a bit larger and/or have spread to more lymph nodes. A multidisciplinary team of cancer experts will work together to determine the best combination of treatments–in the right order. Chemotherapy, radiation, and/or surgery may play a role in treatment.
Stage four is the most advanced category of lung cancer, involving tumors that have metastasized or spread to other parts of the body. While it can be much more difficult to cure at this stage, we have much more hope for people with advanced disease than ever before. Treatment will be personalized to each patient but may involve medical therapies, such as chemotherapy or immunotherapy, that can help to alleviate symptoms and prolong life expectancy.
Regular lung cancer screening can detect early signs of cancer before it progresses and causes symptoms.
Lung cancer screenings use LDCT scans to take detailed pictures of the lungs with minimal radiation. This allows your doctors to spot tiny abnormalities, including early signs of cancer as well as other lung-related conditions before they have a chance to worsen. Detecting these early allows us to catch cancer in more treatable stages than if we wait to diagnose until symptoms appear.
Most smokers aren’t getting the life-saving screenings they need.
Lung cancer screening compliance is extremely low compared to other types of cancer screenings, such as mammograms or colonoscopies. In fact, only about six percent of the eligible population get screened regularly, which is why most cases of lung cancer aren’t diagnosed until later, deadlier stages when it leads to symptoms.
Eligible patients delay lung cancer screenings for a variety of reasons. Some may simply be unaware that they qualify for the screening test. Others may fear what a screening may reveal about their health. While the thought of lung cancer can provoke anxiety, the chances of being diagnosed with an early, more easily treated stage are much higher when you get screened rather than waiting until symptoms appear. And if a screening does reveal a lung nodule or something unusual, don’t jump to any conclusions. A biopsy is the only definitive way we can diagnose and stage lung cancer, and at MedStar Health, you’ll have some of the most experienced doctors working together to determine the right next steps for your care.
Am I eligible for a lung cancer screening?
Lung cancer screening criteria was recently expanded to include anyone between the ages of 50 and 80 who have a 20 pack-year smoking history and currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years.
Whether you picked up your last cigarette fifteen minutes or fifteen years ago, talk to your doctor about your screening eligibility. And if you aren’t at risk, encourage any loved ones who smoke to learn more about screening. It’s free, quick, and painless, and it might just save their life.