Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States and is the second most common cancer in both men and women. In eastern North Carolina, where risk factors for the disease are higher than most other areas in the country, screenings are helping save lives.
“We’ve known since the 1990s that using CT scans at a very low dose can actually save lives,” Dr. Mark Bowling, a pulmonologist at ECU Health Medical Center, said. “Now you can do low dose lung cancer screenings once a year if you meet certain criteria.”
The criteria includes: being between the ages of 50 and 80, having a 20-pack smoking year history – which equals a pack a day for 20 years or two packs a day for 10 years – and having no signs or symptoms of lung cancer.
While low dose CT scans are always available across the system for the insured, a grant program allows ECU Health to offer a once-a-month clinic in Greenville for the uninsured who meet the criteria and have received a referral from their provider.
Jennifer Lewis, Cancer Center outreach coordinator at ECU Health Medical Center, helps run the clinic. She said raising awareness for lung cancer screenings is crucial and can lead to early detection.
“We’re all aware of mammograms for breast cancer screening and colonoscopies for colon cancer, but not a lot of people realize that there’s a screening for lung cancer,” Lewis said. “If we do find something abnormal, we want to find it in its early stages when the outcomes are better, when there are more options for treatment. With lung cancer being a leading cause of cancer-related death, by the time someone starts manifesting lung cancer symptoms, it’s typically very advanced at that time. You have fewer options and your outcomes aren’t positive so our goal is to find cancer before someone begins to have symptoms.”
Lung cancer symptoms are often non-specific, including shortness of breath, coughing up blood, chest pain and inability to move arms among others.
Lewis said she is also passionate about advocating for patients and helping to eliminate stigmas around any cancer, particularly lung cancer.
“We’re here to let people know, if you smoked, if you still smoke, that doesn’t define who you are as a person. We just want to get you screened,” Lewis said. “We’re not here to judge whether or not you smoke. We’re not here to berate you. We will ask if you’ve been educated about smoking cessation, but that’s not why you’re here. We try to make people feel comfortable and feel valued. Your family still loves you and they still want you around so let’s get you screened and make sure you don’t have anything going on that we need to worry about before it becomes a problem.”
Courtney Johnson, Thoracic Oncology Program coordinator at ECU Health Medical Center, has been with the system for 10 years. First, she worked as an inpatient cancer care nurse in the Eddie and Jo Allison Smith Tower at ECU Health Medical Center for about four years and she said it was a rewarding and special time for her.
That led her to her current role in which she helps track and manage at-risk patients through the screening process. She said the best part of her current job is playing a part in early detection.
Recently, she said her team caught cancer in a patient they’d been taking through screenings for about five years. The screenings showed a change in known nodules for the patient and they were sent to surgery to have the cancer removed. Since it was caught in the extremely early stages, the patient did not have any need for chemotherapy and they’ll just have to follow up with future scans for the patient.
“That’s the greatest thing in this position –I can’t prevent everything, I cannot predict outcomes, I can’t prevent what could be the inevitable, but I have a hand in hopefully early intervention,” Johnson said. “I enjoy spending more time with the preventative side of medicine and hopefully allowing our patients to stay out of the hospital. Instead, they come in and we can be proactive with this rather than having to scramble when the patient is in an advanced stage.”
Johnson also shared that radon exposure is a risk factor for lung cancer. She said radon testing kits are available through North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.