The numbers surrounding lung cancer are eye-opening. More than 228,000 people are diagnosed each year in the U.S., and nearly 160,000 people die, 10,000 of them in Florida. Five-year survival rates overall stand at just 16 percent. Lung cancer claims more lives than breast, prostate and colon cancer combined.

Now, there is reason for hope at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of UHealth – University of Miami Health System. As with all cancers, early detection of lung cancer leads to increased survival. The challenge with lung cancer is that symptoms usually don’t appear until the later stages. Recent developments, however, have changed that outlook, giving patients and physicians at Sylvester new optimism.

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Since 2011, the team of lung cancer experts, surgeons, pulmonary physicians, and oncologists at Sylvester has offered patients a lung cancer screening program in conjunction with recommendations by a number of national professional organizations, including the International Early Lung Cancer Action Project (I-ELCAP).

One of the largest randomized controlled clinical trials in the National Cancer Institute’s history showed that low-dose CT screening could reduce lung cancer mortality rates by at least 20 percent.

Dr. Richard Thurer, professor of surgery and co-leader of the Lung Cancer Screening Program at Sylvester, says the scan is “a game changer. To have this technology to detect lung cancer at its earliest stages means we can potentially save more lives.”

For Rita Seiff, a low-dose CT scan changed her life. The Boca Raton resident heard a talk about the screening from a Sylvester surgeon in 2012 and, as a former smoker, felt the doctor was talking to her.

Seiff hadn’t smoked in 26 years, having quit when she was 40. She admits she was in denial. “I had had a chest x-ray six months earlier which showed nothing. Thankfully, I learned about the CT scans and did something.”

The scan found cancer in the upper right lobe of her right lung, and the lobe was removed in surgery, allowing the 66-year-old to return to playing golf and living her life.

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“Hearing about the scan added years to my life,” said Seiff, who paid the $350 scan fee because it was not yet covered by insurance. That has changed.

Medicare recently announced that it covers lung cancer screening for Medicare beneficiaries who meet the requirements. Patients must be 55 to 77 years old, have no symptoms of lung cancer, have a smoking history of at least 30 pack years and smoking cessation of 15 years or less. A pack year is calculated by a person’s average number of packs per day, multiplied by the number of years he/she smoked. For example, a person could have a 30 pack history by smoking one pack a day for 30 years, or two packs a day for 15 years.

Many physicians and researchers applaud the Medicare ruling but point out that it doesn’t go far enough. While smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer, up to 30,000 cases of lung cancer occur each year in people who never smoked.

“We are trying to better understand the other risk factors,” said Thurer. “We know that there are occupational hazards, other environment exposures, and genetic predispositions.”

For Sylvester patients who do require surgery, Dr. Dao M. Nguyen, professor of surgery at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, leads the team of thoracic surgeons at Sylvester. Nguyen’s research focuses on targeted therapies for lung cancer and he is an expert in minimally invasive thoracic surgery. That is also the specialty of Dr. Nestor Villamizar, who recently joined the team.

While the Medicare ruling includes the five million older Americans who are most at risk, others can still get a low-dose CT screening through Sylvester’s ongoing screening program available in Miami, Kendall, Plantation and at Sylvester in Deerfield Beach. CT screening is also a covered service, without copays or deductibles for many insurance programs under the Affordable Care Act.

For more information or to schedule an appointment, call lung cancer screening program coordinator Marie Charles at 305-243-9069. 

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Above content is provided by Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center