Lung cancer screenings can save lives

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A second doctor could mention alternatives your first doctor didn't think of, or even correct a dangerous misdiagnosis.

For many years, doctors have known that screening for certain cancers saves lives. Breast cancer and colon cancer are two examples. Now you can add lung cancer to that list. The National Lung Screening Trial results showed screening people at high risk of lung cancer with CT scans lives

On most days, you can find Sue Schiffler surrounded by her grandkids.

“They always say I’m they’re second mom,” Schiffler said.

These kids are one of the reasons Sue quit smoking – she had a pack a day habit for more than 30 years.

“My grandkids say, ‘you know grandma, you have to live another 30 years,’” Schiffler said.

But she didn’t quit soon enough. Ten years after Sue kicked the habit, she entered the national lung screening trial. It revealed a small cancer.

“This was a study with the CT scanners to see if early detection of lung cancer can save lives,” said Stephen Swensen, M.D., a radiologist at the Mayo Clinic.

Dr. Stephen Swensen and Dr. David Midthun were investigators in the study, which compared screening for lung cancer in high risk patients with x-rays versus CT scans.

“It showed actual lives were saved, mortality reduction. Fewer people died of lung cancer who got CT screening than who got chest x-ray screening,” Midthun said.

Previous studies showed that CT scans can find cancers long before they would show up on x-rays. They can spot cancers as tiny as a grain of rice. This is the first study that showed finding them early, while they’re still curable with surgery, saves lives.

“It showed a 20-percent reduction in mortality,” Midthun said.

That statistic means screening would potentially save many thousands of lives a year. But using a CT scanner to screen for cancer isn’t perfect. One of the problems is that most spots that show up on CT scans are not cancers. So doctors have to do some sleuthing to figure out which ones should be surgically removed. That often involves waiting and screening again months later to see if it grows.

“And if it’s changed in size, then we more closely monitor it,” Swenson said.

They may biopsy it and, if necessary, remove it. Sue had her cancer surgically removed eight years ago.

“I’m just so happy that they did find it because I probably would not be here today,” Schiffler said.