Quick, lung cancer screening can save your life

SEATTLE – A University of Washington thoracic surgeon successfully fought hard to get Medicare and insurers to pay for lung cancer screenings for smokers. 

The number of eligible people who've taken advantage of potential early detection is small so far, but Dr. Douglas Wood said it's a good start.  

Tom Boyle smoked for more than 40 years. 

Last spring, Boyle went in for a lung cancer screening. The fearless skydiver got news that terrified him. 

"I jump out of airplanes, right? No big deal. But when I heard that diagnosis, I've never been so afraid in my life," Boyle said.

Boyle had a small cancerous tumor in his lung. He had surgery with no chemotherapy or radiation, because it was discovered early. 

"Lung cancer screenings give us the chance to take people who were previously lung cancer victims and make them lung cancer survivors," Wood said. 

Wood was on expert panels that convinced Medicare and major insurers to pay for lung cancer screenings for people between the ages of 55 and 77, who smoked a pack a day for 30 years or two packs a day for 15 years. He's not disappointed that only 2 percent of eligible people have taken advantage. 

"I see that 200,000 as a victory. These are people who have the chance of early detection and a chance for cure that they previously wouldn't have," he said.

Traditionally, less than 20 percent of lung cancer patients survive. Early detection brings that up to an 80 to 85 percent chance of long-term survival. Boyle got the message loud and clear. 

"Instead of deciding, 'OK, where am I going to be buried, how am I going to be buried?' you know, all the rest of that nonsense. Now, it's like, 'OK, what kind of trips do I want to take, how many more times am I going to get out of an airplane?"

Boyle said the 15-minute screening gave him 20 years of life.  

Wood said educating patients and doctors about the importance of screening drives screening numbers up. 

He hopes that in five to ten years, lung cancer screenings will be as common as mammograms. 

Right now, screenings are only covered for high-risk people. 

Wood said although about 15 percent of lung cancer patients are non-smokers, the risks of screening for them outweighs any potential benefit.