Lung Cancer Screening from the Sentara Cancer Network Saves Lives

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Zoe Kirk (Courtesy Sentara Healthcare)
Zoe Kirk (Courtesy Sentara Healthcare)

Zoe Kirk didn’t want to be another statistic. At age 60, she saw an ad about CT lung screenings offered for pack-a-day smokers over age 55. She’d smoked for many years, and she knew it put her at higher risk for lung cancer. She also had people in her immediate family that had cancer, and she was worried. Many people avoid going to the doctor until they have to, but taking a more proactive method can be a lifesaver. It certainly was for Zoe.

“I was more concerned because my father died of lung cancer. I figured it was time for me to get checked,” she said.

CT stands for computed tomography, which is a type of imaging machine that scans sections of the body. The Sentara Cancer Network offers CT screenings at 18 accredited facilities in Hampton Roads, with two locations in Williamsburg and one in Gloucester. Offering screenings to the community is a way to help people think about – and do something about – their risks for cancer.

Zoe’s scan showed a nodule in her left lung. Fortunately, her cancer was very small and hadn’t been there that long so she didn’t require chemotherapy or radiation. The left lobe of her lung was removed during surgery and that was the extent of her recommended treatment.

The goal of low-dose CT cancer screening is to diagnose lung cancers at earlier stages when the cancer is treatable and survivable. According to the American Cancer Society, the 5-year survival rate for non-small cell lung cancer is almost 50 percent for a Stage 1 diagnosis, compared to 30 percent for Stage 2, 14 percent for Stage 3, and 1 percent for Stage 4.   

According to Gregory Biernacki, M.D, of Sentara Family Medicine Physicians in Williamsburg, “Finding lung cancer early, prior to onset of symptoms, provides the patient the best opportunity for treatment to a cure. I discuss a low-dose CT screening, as recommended by the U.S. Preventive Task Force, with any patient between the age of 55-80 who has smoked the equivalent of a pack a day for 30 years and is currently smoking or who has quit within the last 15 years.”

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force estimates that lung cancer screening saves 1 life for every 320 screenings completed. This is a higher rate than mammograms (1 in 1,339 screenings for women 50-59) or colorectal screening (1 life for every 500 screenings), although these screenings are more well-known.

Zoe continues to get scans every three months to keep an eye out for any changes. A year after her original scan detected a tumor, Zoe showed no evidence of cancer.

This story shows just how life-saving lung cancer screening can be. The evidence supports that, too. The National Lung Screening Trial, a randomized trial of over 55,000 participants, found that individuals who received low-dose CT scans had a 15 to 20 percent lower risk of dying from lung cancer than those who received standard chest X-rays.

Medicare, and several other insurance plans, now cover this important screening at no cost when a patient is referred by his or her physician. The implementation of this change in the program has generated more interest among current and former smokers. The technology, along with the increased outreach, is changing the entire field of lung cancer.

No one wants to be told they have cancer, but for people with high risk factors like smoking, it’s important for them to be screened as soon as possible. It increases chances of treating and surviving it.