Lung cancer deaths higher due to lack of exam, awareness

Even as a respiratory therapist, Leia Kennedy didn't know about a lung cancer screening exam that can find those cancers early.

But she knows the toll it can take when it is found late, as it was with her father, Wyman White, 64. 

"He didn't quite make a year," after he was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer in April 2020, Kennedy said. Now she is joining with the American Lung Association to try to raise awareness about the scans and lung cancer in general, which includes a 5K run/walk in Charleston in October.

There is a long way to go with that public awareness, according to a survey released Aug. 1 by the lung association. In its 2022 Lung Health Barometer, the group surveyed 4,000 adults in the U.S. and found:

  • Less than a third — 29 percent — knew lung cancer was the leading cause of cancer death in the country. According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer will kill 130,180 people this year, including 2,560 in South Carolina, and account for 21 percent of all cancer deaths, far outstripping prostate cancer in men (11 percent of deaths) and breast cancer in women (15 percent of deaths).
  • About one in four — 26 percent — knew that lung cancer survival rates have been improving over the last decade, in large part due to screening and improved treatment.
  • Nearly 70 percent did not know there was a screening exam for lung cancer.

That last figure was actually an improvement over some previous surveys that found even fewer people  knew of the exams, which shows that efforts to publicize them could be working, said Dr. Elizabeth Kline, a thoracic surgeon at Roper St. Francis Healthcare. But it was not surprising to Dr. Benjamin Toll, co-director of the lung cancer screening program at Hollings Cancer Center at the Medical University of South Carolina.

"It's unfortunate and it just speaks to the fact that we need to do a better job with publicizing the fact that we have lung cancer screening for eligible participants," he said.

The low-dose CT scan screening is for smokers or former smokers who have quit in the past 15 years, are between the ages of 50 and 80 and have a 20-year pack history, defined as smoking a pack a day for 20 years. But of the estimated 14.2 million people in the country who are eligible for the screening, only about 6 percent get it, the lung association said.

If even half the people who needed it got one, it could save 12,000 lives a year, said Dr. Karen Gersch, a cardiothoracic surgeon with Trident Health. That screening program is the most effective of all the cancer screenings at finding tumors and making a difference in patient survival, Kline said.

"The benefits of lung cancer screening far outweigh all of the other cancer screenings that we have," she said.

If the cancer is caught early, then surgery is often a great option for those patients, Gersch said.

"My early stage patients, we go to surgery and they go home the next day, the overwhelming majority of them," she said.

MUSC respiratory therapist Leia Kennedy takes care of a patient at the cardiovascular intensive care unit at Ashley River Tower. Sarah Pack/MUSC

Importance of early detection

South Carolina has a slightly higher rate of lung cancer than the national average and a lower rate of survival.

But the situation is improving: The number of lung cancers found early in the state has increased by 33 percent over the past five years and slightly more eligible patients get screened at 6.2 percent compared with a national average of 5.7 percent, according to a previous lung association report.

The difference is like night and day between lung cancers found early and those found late. In the early stages, the five-year survival rate is 60 percent. It is 6 percent for those found late.

Unfortunately, that is when patients start to experience symptoms and that is when they show up for treatment, Gersch said.

"They are coughing up blood, or they are having chest pain, or something," she said. "At that point, the cancer is already advanced."

'A very short year'

It was that way for Kennedy's father, Wyman White.

As a young man, he joined the Air Force and was told "Smoke 'em if you got 'em," Kennedy said. He picked up a pack of cigarettes and then couldn't put them down. 

Wyman White in an undated photo, on an oyster bed near Charleston. Provided

"Despite the family trying to get him to quit, he just couldn't quit," she said. By the time he was diagnosed in 2020, it was already late Stage IV and didn't seem to respond to treatment. It was also during the pandemic.

"It was tough going back and forth, you're scared to go to the hospital because COVID is everywhere," Kennedy said. "It was definitely a rough, scary year for him."

In the end, he stopped treatment and was cared for at home.

"It was a very long year for him, but it was a very short year for us who wanted more time with him," Kennedy said.

It was only after all of that began that the family learned about lung cancer screening. It is something Kennedy now wants to make sure everyone knows about.

"We just don't know what resources are available," she said. "I'm really passionate about trying to help any way I can to raise awareness."

Working in an Intensive Care Unit, it is "almost too late" to reach patients at that point, Kennedy said. But she does reach out to the families.

"So I do more consoling them, answering their questions, relating to them that I have been through a similar scenario," she said. "Trying to reach people before it gets to that point is the whole point of joining the LungForce walk."

MUSC respiratory therapist Leia Kennedy lost her father to lung cancer and wants to make sure everyone knows about lung cancer screening. Sarah Pack/MUSC

Sarah Pack/MUSC

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