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Ministry of Health to pilot lung cancer screening programme proven internationally to catch up to 80% of tumours in their earliest stage.
The Health Ministry has approved a three-year pilot programme for early detection of lung cancer that could substantially increase the number of patients cured of the otherwise deadly disease, according to Prof. Dorith Shaham, head of Hadassah-University Medical Centre’s Thoracic Imaging Centre.
About 2,500 people are diagnosed with lung cancer in Israel each year, and about 1,800 people die from the disease. Lung cancer is the No. 1 cause of cancer death, because in more than two-thirds of cases (70%), it is detected only at a late, metastatic stage.
Before reaching the most advanced stage of cancer, stage 4, lung cancer is considered a quiet tumour that does not express symptoms, which allows it to grow and spread without interruption, Shaham said.
“If 1,800 people die each year of lung cancer, even if we save 200 or 300 people per year, it’s a lot,” she said.
Shaham expects that CT screening could save even more people than that.
“Today, in Israel, two means are available for early detection of lung cancer,” Shaham told The Jerusalem Post. “The first is by accident, because a CT scan was performed for another reason, for example, due to a car accident or coughing. The second option is by a CT scan meant for early detection of lung cancer.”
But, she said, until now, such screening was infrequent because of lack of awareness, as well as the high cost of paying for the test privately.
“We want to diagnose lung cancer as early as possible while doing as few unnecessary interventions as possible,” Shaham said.
In only 1% to 1.5% of cases, the patient is diagnosed with having malignant cancer cells. In other words, the vast majority of nodules are benign. But for those who do have cancer, the sooner the cancerous tumour is diagnosed, the greater chance of curing it.
A CT scan for early detection of lung cancer is recommended for people aged 55 to 75 who smoked one pack a day for 30 years or two packs a day for 15 years. This recommendation even applies to those who smoked this amount in the past and stopped within the last 15 years.
Shaham said the programme will not include the entire target population described above, just a segment of it, which will help health professionals to determine that the screening has an equally positive effect in Israel as it does in larger countries such as the United States or Western Europe. Although lung cancer is among Israel’s largest killers, its prevalence remains about a third of that in the US or Western Europe, she said.
The degree of risk that a person takes by undergoing a low-intensity CT scan is the same as the risk of a person smoking one cigarette a day, Shaham said.
“So, radiation exposure, for a person who smokes a pack a day, is probably the last thing to worry about,” she said.
“Technology is advancing very quickly,” Shaham said. “We want to capture as many people at risk as possible and do as much good as possible. This is the only thing that can really save the lives of lung-cancer patients.”