Some people at high risk for lung cancer due to smoking now have the option of being screened with a powerful method that has been proven to save lives. Memorial Sloan Kettering’s new Lung Cancer Screening Program offers low-dose CT screening to current and former smokers who fit specific criteria in order to detect the disease at its earliest stage.
“This is an extraordinary opportunity to improve some patients’ lives and even cure their disease by catching lung cancers early,” says thoracic surgeon Nabil P. Rizk, who led the team developing the screening program along with Michelle S. Ginsberg, Director of Cardiothoracic Imaging.
The Lung Cancer Screening Program provides low-dose CT screening for longtime smokers between the ages of 55 and 74. Eligible patients will receive an initial scan, then follow-up scans one and two years later. Low-dose CT scans use only about 20 percent of the radiation of conventional CT scans.
A Proven Approach
Eligibility is based on results from the National Lung Screening Trial, a groundbreaking study that found that lung cancer deaths in patients fitting these same criteria were decreased by 20 percent in people who had three low-dose CT scans over two years. Results from this study were reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2011.
“Many cancer screening efforts have had disappointing results when it came to actually saving lives,” Dr. Rizk says. “But this study gave us conclusive evidence that low-dose CT screening provides a clear benefit to certain people at high risk for lung cancer. We are among the first cancer centers to offer this type of screening but anticipate this approach will eventually be adopted nationwide.”
The scans are interpreted by Memorial Sloan Kettering radiologists who are highly specialized in reading lung CT scans. Because the sensitive scans produce a significant number of false positives (detection of abnormalities that are noncancerous), it is essential that the medical team chooses an intervention that does not put the patient at unnecessary risk. If a scan detects an abnormality, Memorial Sloan Kettering physicians can use minimally invasive techniques to take a biopsy and, if cancer is detected, stage the disease with great precision.
Many options exist to treat early-stage lung cancer while minimizing complications. Some patients can be treated with alternatives to surgery — such as destroying a tumor with tightly focused radiation, freezing it (cryotherapy), or using high-energy electromagnetic waves (radiofrequency ablation).
“For patients with a positive result, our specialists have the expertise to determine the best course of action for each individual case,” Dr. Rizk says. “If lung cancer is diagnosed, our multidisciplinary teams can provide effective therapies that clearly make a difference.”