Without symptoms: How a CT scan found a hidden lung cancer

Glen Wells of Central Square volunteers at Upstate University Hospital one day a week. (PHOTO BY RICHARD WHELSKY)

Glen Wells of Central Square volunteers at Upstate University Hospital one day a week. (PHOTO BY RICHARD WHELSKY)

Glen Wells was a smoker most of his life, and cancer runs in his family. He quit smoking in 2007.

In 2013 when his family doctor, David Page, MD, suggested he be screened annually for lung cancer, Wells followed the advice – not realizing at the time that it would ultimately save his life.

Medical insurance did not cover the cost of the screening at that time. Wells paid $235 out of his own pocket. The computerized tomography scan revealed nothing unusual in his lungs. He returned in 2014, and again the scan was clear.

By the third year, his insurance plan was paying for the screening. This time, the scan showed a troubling spot.

Wells, 67, who lives in Central Square, had no cough. He was never out of breath. Nothing was a chore for him. “I had absolutely no symptoms whatsoever,” he says.

A biopsy revealed cancer. It was a small cancer in the early stages, confined to the upper lobe of his right lung. Lung cancers that are discovered at such an early stage have a good chance for cure.

Within a month, he underwent surgery to have that lobe removed. That was it. He required no chemotherapy and no radiation.

His treatment was over before the diagnosis really sank in. Today, almost a year after the surgery, he’s healthy, and he’s grateful for the screening. “Without that screening, I never would have known.”

How you can get screened

Most insurance plans now pay for annual screening for lung cancer for smokers and those who have quit within the last 15 years if they are between ages 55 and 77 and have no symptoms of lung cancer. Low-dose computerized tomography (CT) scans are designed for people with a history of “30-pack year” smoking. (See definition below.)

Studies have shown more than 80 percent of the lung cancers detected in screening are stage 1, meaning they are treatable or curable, says Santiago Miro, MD, who leads Upstate’s lung cancer screening program.

He says lung cancer deaths drop by about 20 percent in smokers and former smokers who undergo annual screening. Death rates also drop from other causes, since the CT scan sometimes discovers other potentially life-threatening problems that can be treated.

Patients have to understand nodules that are harmless may appear similar to nodules that are cancerous, so additional testing may be required.

While the U.S. Preventive Task Force recommends annual screenings for people between age 55 and 80, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reimburses for people age 55 to 77. Miro said most insurance companies cover people from age 55 through 79.

Schedule a screening by contacting your primary care provider, or by calling 315-464-7064 or 1-800-464-8668.

What’s a pack year?

Multiply the number of packs of cigarettes smoked per day by the number of years smoked. Thirty pack years is equal to smoking one pack a day for 30 years, or two packs a day for 15 years, and so on.

spring16cancerhloa-art2This article appears in the spring 2016 issue of Cancer Care magazine. Hear a radio interview about lung cancer screening with radiologist Santiago Miro, MD.

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