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Lung cancer screening rates are low, doctors want to see more at-risk San Diegans

Lung cancer is the deadliest cancer, yet a new report reveals just a fraction of at-risk Californians are being screened for it.. KPBS Health Reporter Matt Hoffman says early detection could save someone’s life.

Lung cancer is the deadliest form of cancer, yet a new report reveals just a fraction of at-risk Californians are being screened for it. The American Lung Association report found just 1% of Californians eligible for lung cancer screenings actually get them.

"It really breaks my heart because lung cancer remains the number one cause of cancer-related death," said Dr. Tom Buchholz, medical director of Scripps MD Anderson Cancer Center and a Scripps Clinic physician.

Buchholz said lung cancer is typically diagnosed at later stages when the survival rate is low, but those diagnosed and treated early have much better outcomes.


"We have to have a greater concerted effort to get those patients in need of screenings to the appropriate screening studies," he said.

Scripps has worked to streamline the screening process and make it easier for patients. Doctors say anyone over 50 who smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for over 20 years should be getting screened. Typically referrals come from primary care doctors.

"That doctor knows the patient who says, 'You’ve been smoking for thirty years — you need to get a lung cancer screening,'" said Dr. Charles Redfern, medical director of the Laurel Amtower Cancer Institute at Sharp Memorial Hospital.

If diagnosed early, Redfern said surgery or radiation can remove the cancer.

"A lot of people think you just cant do much for lung cancer," Redfern said. "Well you can do a lot if you find it early. That’s really the message here."


Redfern said lung cancer screenings are done through CT (computerized tomography) scans. He said over the last decade more insurance plans and Medicare have moved to cover them.

"You don't get injected with anything and you don't get an IV put in," Redfern said about the lung cancer screening process. "You lay in a CT scanner and basically hold your breath and go through the machine. The test takes like a minute."

While cigarette use has dropped, cannabis and nicotine vaping products are on the rise. Officials said more lung cancer research is needed there.

"It’s hard for me to imagine inhaling an electronic-heat nicotine product with flavored chemicals is good for your lung," Redfern said. "I think anything like that you do daily for 30 or 40 years has got to be bad for you."

Buchholz said treatments for those with more developed lung cancer has improved. Ultimately he said avoiding tobacco is the safest option.

"The number one bottom line message is let's do everything to prevent it through education about the harmfulness of tobacco and let's do everything we can for when it does develop — to detect it early," Buccholz said.

Depending on the patient, lung cancer screenings could be recommended every year.

The report from the American Lung Association also found those of color generally face worse outcomes from lung cancer, compared to white Americans. It added no one should go untreated because they are unable to afford care, lack of provider or patient knowledge, or due to stigma associated with lung cancer.