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.
Sanford Burnham Prebys 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 C) 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.
“Early detection is key to reducing lung cancer deaths. We estimate as many as 60,000 lives could be saved each year if the 14.5 million Americans who are eligible received annual lung cancer screening. This would allow us to catch the disease early when curative treatment options are available,” said Jhanelle E. Gray, MD, statement co-author and department chair and program leader of Thoracic Oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Fla.
The new effort 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.
“We have identified the barriers to lung cancer screening. Now, we need everyone to come together to overcome them. We need a national education and awareness campaign — not just to reach individuals who are eligible for screenings, but also the providers and health educators who should be recommending them,” said Mary Reid, PhD, MSPH, statement co-author and chief of Cancer Screening and Survivorship at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo, NY.
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.
“Lung cancer treatment has progressed significantly over the past decade thanks to big breakthroughs in cancer research,” says Ze’ev Ronai, Ph.D., director of the NCI-designated Cancer Center at Sanford Burnham Prebys. “But we can only treat people who have been diagnosed, and this initiative to increase lung cancer screening will give more individuals at risk the opportunity to benefit from new life-saving therapies.”