Check Up 13: Screening to detect lung cancer early is significantly underutilized

The CT scan that helps detect lung cancer. (WTHR, Anne Marie Tiernon)

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) — Terry Snell knows there are many other Hoosiers just like him – lifelong smokers.

More than one in five Indiana adults smoke cigarettes, and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce reported Indiana's rank as 44th worst of 50 states.

Snell worked in a factory outside of Frankfort for nearly 34 years, often smoking two packs a day while on the clock.

"It's hard to quit smoking," he said. "It's probably like an addiction I guess. I couldn't just quit."

During a routine doctor visit in his late 60's, Snell's primary care physician noted his risk factors, lack of symptoms and ordered a low-dose lung CT scan.

"Identifying it early makes such a huge difference in long-term survival."

It detected a nodule later confirmed to be lung cancer.

"Lung cancer is the bad player. We hear about prostate, we hear about colon cancer, we hear about breast cancer, lung cancer kills more patients every year than all those [...] put together," Ascension St. Vincent Thoracic Surgeon Vijay Nuthakki MD said. "We are not screening as much as we should."

Snell's cancer was found early. Nuthakki removed the upper lobe of Snell's left lung and says statistically his five-year chance of survival is now 70 to 80 percent.

"Identifying it early makes such a huge difference in long-term survival. I cannot emphasize the importance of it," Nuthakki said. "In this situation, if you can find it early then that is the best way to treat it, and you can potentially achieve a cure."

Nuthakki said that if you were to look at all patients diagnosed with lung cancer, statistics would show that about 19 out of 100 or about 20 percent will be alive in five years. Comparatively, if you found lung cancer in an early stage and were able to remove it with surgery, 70 percent of those people or 70 out of 100 will be alive in five years.

For qualified patients, the screening is covered by insurance and it requires an order from a qualified medical professional. For diagnostic purposes, Nuthakki said the images are superior to the traditional chest x-ray. The key is to screen the right patients.

"We specifically are looking for patients who have been smoking [...] enough to have smoked '30-pack years', either a pack a day for 30 years or two packs a day for 15 years," Nuthakki said.

Patients must be 55 years or older and have no symptoms. If they have symptoms, then they can get a regular CT scan but this is for asymptomatic patients.

Snell no longer smokes and believes the screening added years to his life.

"I feel lucky that they caught it in time," Snell said.

If you don't have insurance, the low-dose lung CT scan is $99, courtesy Ascension St. Vincent and Check Up 13 for qualified Indiana residents.

You must register before midnight on Nov. 13, 2019. To register, call the hotline at 1-866-824-3251 between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. or register online.

To qualify, you must be 55 years or older.

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