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Focus on lung cancer, Sutter Evaluation Center plans to combat deadly disease

Doctor’s column
By: By Stephen Maxwell, M.D., FCCP, Special to The News Messenger
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 More people die from lung cancer in the United States than from any other type of cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths for men and women. It’s responsible for 29 percent of all cancer deaths in our country, more than breast, colon and prostate cancer combined.

There are a number of reasons for these alarming statistics, including the fact that more than half of all lung cancers are diagnosed at an advanced stage, limiting treatment options and resulting in fewer survivors.

That has been cited as one reason for the relative lack of funding and awareness of lung cancer, along with the stigma that comes from it being considered a smoker’s disease.

It’s true that men and women who smoke are 23 and 13 times more likely, respectively, to develop lung cancer than those who don’t smoke. While smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer, the majority of people diagnosed today don’t smoke; 50 percent are former smokers and 15 percent never smoked.

That’s the sobering news. But there are some exciting developments with respect to lung cancer screening that may positively affect survivorship.

On the screening front, the National Lung Screening Trial released findings last year noting a 20 percent lower risk of death among study participants (current or former heavy smokers) who were screened with CT scans rather than standard chest X-rays. That news has resulted in hundreds of screening programs springing up to target the at-risk population.

When abnormalities are discovered, a couple of exciting new technologies allow us to more safely make diagnoses. Using super dimension bronchoscopy, we can navigate to small and hard-to-reach nodules and we can sample lymph nodes with endobronchial ultrasound, which uses an ultrasound probe.

New developments have occurred in lung cancer treatment as well. We are able to remove large tumors with small incisions, speeding recovery and shortening the length of hospital stays.

We’ve also been very successful using specialized forms of radiation, some of which offer results comparable to surgery, and using chemotherapy to target tumors based on genetic markers.

With the hope of diagnosing lung cancer earlier and improving survival rates, Sutter Health focuses on raising awareness about lung cancer. We want to make sure people understand it’s not a disease limited to smokers (who still deserve compassion, if they have it).

In recent years, we’ve actually seen a disturbing rise in the number of lung cancer cases among women who never smoked.

The best way to prevent lung cancer is not to smoke but you should also steer clear of secondhand smoke and environmental agents such as asbestos.

Don’t ignore potential lung cancer symptoms such as a new coughing onset or a cough that’s different, have pneumonia that doesn’t seem to be getting better, are coughing up blood or experiencing shortness of breath. See your doctor.

Dr. Stephen Maxwell, a board-certified thoracic and cancer surgeon, is affiliated with Sutter Medical Group and Sutter Medical Foundation; Sutter Medical Center, Sacramento and Sutter Roseville Medical Center. He can be reached at 773-8750.