Lung Cancer Screening is Underutilized

Dr. Jinai Huo of the University of Florida (Go Gators!) presented data to Reuters Health that primary care physicians are under-utilizing the technology available to screen for lung cancer. This is a particularly sore topic to me because my associate and I always screened smokers and heavy past smokers for lung cancer with an annual chest x-ray until the United States Preventive Task Force issued guidelines that it didn’t save lives and was not cost effective.  They said, it cost $200,000 in normal x-rays to find one cancer early and it was deemed not worth it.

We actually sold our chest x-ray unit, let go our certified radiology technician and cancelled a contract with radiologists to read our films because insurers stopped paying for chest x-rays after the USPTF ruling.  Twenty years later that same group said “woops” an error was made. The statistical analysis on that study was done incorrectly and actually screening does save lives and is cost effective.

Today we have the fast low dose CT scanner to screen for lung cancer and screening does save lives according to the data.  Who should be screened?

Current smokers or those who have quit smoking within the last 15 years who are 55 to 77 years old and have a smoking history of 30 packs or more per year (one pack per day for 30 years or 2 packs a day for fifteen years).  Screening should be done on individuals in good health so if a lesion is found they are considered well enough to undergo diagnostic tests and treatment.

Screening is also recommended in those individuals over 50 years old with a twenty (20) pack year smoking history and a family history of lung cancer or lung disease or occupational exposure to items associated with causing cancer such as radon.

I inquire about smoking at each visit and have been fortunate in that few of our patients still smoke so we spend less time on counseling for smoking cessation.  If you fall into one of the screening groups mentioned in this article, and have not been screened, please notify us so we can arrange for the testing which will be a low dose chest CT scan.

Cleaning Is Hazardous to Your Lungs and Overall Health

In an article published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine it was shown that women who regularly clean homes show a marked decline in pulmonary function. The study looked at 6,230 persons participating in the European Community Respiratory Health Survey over a period of 20 years.

Normally lung function declines as we age but women who were professional home cleaners, and who used cleaning sprays, declined at a far faster rate than women who did not clean at home or professionally. For unclear reasons in this study cleaning did not appear to effect the measurements on men. The study authors were quick to point out that there were very few men in the study making their conclusions on men less meaningful.

The authors looked at two main parameters, Forced Vital Capacity (the maximum amount of air exhaled after a maximum inspiration) and Forced Expiratory Volume in one second. They noted that decrease in Forced Vital Capacity is associated with decreased long term survival in patients without known pulmonary disease. They additionally noted a slight increase in the development of asthma in the home cleaners.

The authors postulated that cleaning products were “low grade irritants” and chronic exposure could lead to remodeling of the airways and resultant decline in pulmonary function. While reading this article I thought about how infrequently we read labels on the products we use to clean our homes, cars and elsewhere before using them. How often do we actually follow the health advice listed on the bottle? Should we be wearing N95 respirator type masks when using cleaning sprays and working in sparsely ventilated areas? What about children and their exposure? Should we be using these products around them and or our pets? Is it the actual spraying that exposes cleaners or does the products effects linger well after use?

These are all questions that few, if anyone, looks into or answers but certainly need to be addressed now that these findings have been published.

Need To Expand the Recommendations for Screening for Lung Cancer in Former Smokers

In 1976 when I began my internship in internal medicine almost all cigarette smokers 35 years of age or older received an annual chest x ray to screen for lung cancer. In the 1990’s as managed care and insurers’ stopped paying for these screenings, we were told by the experts that the cost of saving one life by looking at every smoker was not cost effective. Insurance companies stopped paying for these films at the same time that medical advisory boards insisted on clinicians sending their chest x-rays out to be read by radiologists, adding extra costs to each film.

The practice of routine screening virtually disappeared. With it came a large increase in the number of smoking related deaths from lung cancer. It took the “experts” almost two decades to realize the errors of their decision.

In 2014 the US Preventive Services Task Force endorsed performing low dose computed tomography (CT Scans) in patients who were a high risk for lung cancer. This group was defined as individuals aged 55 to 80 years who had smoked at least 30 pack years (computed as number of packages of cigarettes smoked per day times the years the individual smoked) in individuals who continued to smoke or had quit within the last 15 years. The data to back up this recommendation came from Ping Yang, MD, PhD and colleagues at the Mayo Clinic. Their research and the new recommendations have helped reduce lung cancer deaths by 20%.

Since these recommendations were instituted, Dr. Yang and colleagues have continued to evaluate the guidelines. They found that individuals who quit smoking 15 -30 years ago are being diagnosed with lung cancer at a rate of 12-17 % of the newly diagnosed cases. They consequently are now recommending that we screen all adults 55- 80 with a 30 pack year history even if they quit more than 15 years ago.

The US Preventive Services Task Force which produces the recommendations that insurers consider has not yet endorsed this suggestion. In our practice we will be recommending low dose CT lung scanning annually on all our smokers who meet the Mayo Clinic criteria. If you, as my patient, fall into that group and have not been getting annual low dose CT Scanning of the lung for lung cancer detection please let us know so that we may set up a surveillance program. We understand the increased cost and ionizing radiation exposure that CT Scans involve but Dr Wang’s research suggests that the benefits outweigh the costs and risks.

Three More Strikes Against Smoking

There is no doubt that cigarette smoking is a practice that contributes to poor health and earlier death. Despite this, the practice is still popular among the young. Over the last three weeks several new research articles have been published that support the concept that smoking is severely detrimental to your health.

An Australian study published in Stroke: Journal of the American Stroke Association pointed out that individuals who had a stroke at the time they were active smokers had a far worse outcome and long term outcome than non- smokers. It additionally showed that smokers had the stroke at a younger age than nonsmokers. The group was followed for another 10 years and had a higher incidence of strokes, heart attacks and deaths than the nonsmoking group. The study emphasized the devastation and cost of “healthy years of life lost” as a consequence of continuing to smoke.

In an online publication in the Lancet, researchers working in the “Great Britain Million Women Study” noted that women who quit smoking lived longer than women who continued – irrespective of the age they decided to stop smoking. They additionally lowered their chances of dying from lung cancer.

A study out of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota looked at the effect of indoor smoking bans on heart attack rates in a community. This study looked at the effect of secondhand smoke on individuals. The Mayo Clinic has an exhaustive and large data base of individuals in the Midwest who have come to their clinic for health care for generations. They believe that in their study population, the number and extent of cardiovascular risk factors has remained fairly constant but, since the institution of strict bans on indoor smoking, the number of heart attacks has dropped dramatically.

Smoking Increases the Risk of Breast Cancer, Lung Cancer and Colon Cancer in Women

The Surgeon General of the United States issued another report on the dangers of smoking and its addictive potential last year.  At the time of release I was quite skeptical about the cost of the report and the need to remind Americans again that smoking is dangerous for you.  Then along comes a detailed review of the National Surgical Adjuvant Breast and Bowel Project. According to Stephanie Land, PhD, of the University of Pittsburgh, long-time smokers had a 59% increase in the risk of invasive breast cancer compared with nonsmokers.  The study looked at the links between four types of malignancy: breast, lung, colon, and endometrial cancer with smoking, alcohol use and leisure time activity.  The findings suggested that:

1.       Women who had smoked between 15 and 35 years had a 35% increase in the risk of breast cancer compared to non smokers. In that same group, if a woman smoked more than a pack a day she had a five – fold higher risk than non smokers.

2.       Women who had smoked 35 years or more had a 59% increase in the risk of breast cancer. These long-term smokers had a 30 times higher risk of lung cancer than non smokers.

3.       The risk of colon cancer among long–term smokers was five times higher than among non smokers.  A drink of alcohol a day reduced the risk of colon cancer by 65% compared to non drinkers.

4.       Inactive women had a 72% increased risk of uterine endometrial cancer compared to active participants in the study.

The study of almost 14,000 women highlighted the benefits of improving life style choices.  While researchers search for drugs and medication to prevent these life threatening illnesses, the study pointed out the benefits of altering the life style choices of women to prevent the development of cancer.

It is clear that smoking prevention and smoking cessation programs can do far more to prevent these cancers than pharmaceuticals. With cutbacks on funding for public health and the elimination of most health and hygiene classes in middle schools and high schools due to financial constraints, I wonder if we are being penny wise and pound foolish.