Screening to save lives: UTMB program aims to make lung cancer screening as routine as mammograms, colonoscopies

Apr 20, 2017, 12:50 PM by Stephen Hadley
Lung Screening
Lisa Rogers says there’s little doubt in her mind that lung cancer screening saved her life.

The 62-year-old Rosharon resident continually battled pneumonia and was in and out of the hospital several times over the past two years.

But in February, while in the hospital with complications from pneumonia yet again, Rogers met Dr. Ikenna Okereke, chief of Thoracic Surgery.

Okereke, who joined UTMB in 2015 and heads up a lung cancer screening program at the institution, says the scan of Rogers’ lungs revealed what was causing her continual health issues: a cancerous tumor in the lower lobe of her right lung that had grown to nearly four inches.

Within a week of her diagnosis, Okereke and his team of lung cancer specialists had removed the tumor and Rogers began her road to recovery.

But Okereke says Rogers’ diagnosis could have come much sooner had she been involved in UTMB’s lung cancer screening program as a part of her routine preventive care.

“One of the benefits of lung screening programs is that they can diagnose cancer fairly early,” Okereke says. “Although Ms. Rogers’ tumor was a little more advanced, it was still caught in time to allow us to do minimally invasive surgery, which we can do for almost any lesion we detect through the screening program.”

Okereke’s mission is to make lung cancer screening as ubiquitous as mammograms or colonoscopies for people who are considered at high risk of developing lung cancer: those between the ages of 55 and 77 who have a 30-pack/year history (the number of packs smoked per day multiplied by the number of years smoking).

“I’ve been in practice for about 10 years, and I’ve always been a big proponent of lung cancer screening,” says Okereke. “There are well-known screening programs for breast cancer, colon cancer and prostate cancer. But lung cancer kills more people in this country than breast, colon, prostate and pancreatic cancers combined. For decades now we’ve had no real screening modality, whereas these other cancers have. That’s what I’m working to change.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 156,000 people in the U.S. died from lung cancer in 2013, the most recent year data was available. That same year, breast cancer claimed the lives of 49,000 Americans while colon cancer killed more than 51,000 and prostate cancer led to 27,000 deaths.

A program Okereke conducted while at Brown University Veteran’s Center in Providence, Rhode Island, screened 1,832 high-risk patients over a one-year period. The screening program increased the rate of detection of Stage 1 and Stage 2 lung cancers—relatively early-stage cancers with a good chance of a cure and the ability to treat via minimally invasive surgeries—from 37 percent to 60 percent.

One of the impediments to making lung cancer screening routine was the cost. In the past, a typical screen cost between $300 and $400. But about two years ago, Medicare and most private insurers began covering the lung cancer screens.

The process now is as straightforward as most other screening protocols: Patients make an appointment with either Okereke or one of the pulmonology group members for a 15- to 20-minute consultation before they have a five-minute CT scan. From there, patients can usually expect to get their results within a day.

Okereke says that comprehensive lung cancer screening nation-wide, including in areas like Galveston and Brazoria counties, could potentially save 40,000 to 60,000 lives a year if the screens were a part of routine preventive care recommended by physicians to their high-risk patients.

That population certainly includes Rogers, who had been a smoker for nearly 50 years. She quit two years ago, after her first bout of pneumonia. And now that the tumor has been removed from her lung, Rogers says she’s able to breathe again without trouble.

“I have no doubt that this saved my life,” Rogers says. “I suspect that if Dr. Okereke had not caught this, the pneumonia would have done me in because the tumor wasn’t allowing the fluid to drain from my lungs.

“Now, I can lie down at night and not cough. I’m not running a fever anymore. I’ve still got to get my energy level back up following the surgery, but other than that, I feel pretty good.”