SALEM - A $99 low-dose CT lung cancer screening program started two months ago at Salem Community Hospital can detect cancer the size of a pea in a 3-D high-resolution image of the lungs.
For five of the 32 patients so far who have stood and held their breath for 3 seconds for the scan, that's been a priceless picture, showing them they have lung cancer in time for them to have life-saving treatment.
"Our goal is to catch the lung cancer before you have symptoms so you can be cured," SCH Medical Imaging Department Chairman Peter Apicella, M.D. said. "You have to catch it when it's small enough that you can take it out."
Three of the five patients diagnosed with lung cancer have already had surgery to remove it.
"We think this is going to make a huge difference because lung cancer is such a huge problem in this area," he said.
By the time lung cancer typically causes symptoms in a patient, the cancer tumor can be the size of a fist or six times larger than the small size the CT scanner can detect before symptoms appear. Symptoms can include a cough, chest pain, blood in a cough and pneumonia.
As a means to improve the chances of survival for residents in the SCH service area, Apicella said the hospital decided to offer the low-cost screening for people with a history of smoking and those with increased risk factors for lung cancer.
"Lung cancer is the number one cancer killer. It kills more people than breast, prostate and colon cancers combined," he said.
In a press release about the program, he referenced a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine based on the National Lung Cancer Screening Trial which "proved that patients at high risk for lung cancer who are followed by annual low-dose CTs have a 20 percent reduction in lung cancer deaths compared with using traditional chest x-rays."
Apicella explained that chest x-rays produce shadows of the lungs while the low-dose CT produces high-resolution 3-D images of the lungs. The screening takes just a few seconds "with minimal radiation, no special diet or preparation, no holding of medications, and no injections."
He compared the idea of the annual CT scans to the annual mammogram which helps detect breast cancer.
Patients eligible for the screening include: those age 55 and older with a smoking history of 30 or more pack years or who quit smoking within 15 years; those 50 or older with a smoking history of 20 or more pack years with increased risk factors for lung cancer, such as COPD, environmental/occupational exposure, prior cancer, radiation therapy, genetics or family history; and lung cancer survivors.
Patients not eligible for the $99 program would be symptomatic patients (coughs, colds, etc.) and patients with prior abnormal diagnostic chest CTs, whose insurance would typically cover a complete CT of the chest in those cases.
Apicella said people who think they may be eligible should talk with their physician to see if the test is right for them. The physician would have to order the test. Patients must have a local physician on the SCH medical staff or live within the SCH service area.
People without a primary care physician can contact the SCH medical staff coordinator at 330-332-7213 for help.
Smokers who participate in the screening will also receive information on smoking cessation classes and other cancer screenings. The press release noted that stopping smoking "is the most important step to reduce the risk of lung cancer, but low-dose CT lung screening may help detect lung cancer at an earlier stage to help improve treatment."
The $99 cost for the program is not covered by Medicare or most insurances at this time, but the Salem Community Hospital Charitable Foundation can cover the cost for people who can't afford it.
"We know there could be people who are ideal candidates for screening, but $99 could be a problem," said LuAnn Haddad, SCH Vice President of Institutional Advancement and representative of the Charitable Foundation.
"Don't let that stop you from getting this screening. There is help available if that's a problem," she said.
The Charitable Foundation is a support arm for the hospital, made up of a board of volunteers from the community who work on fundraising events as a means to help the hospital help the community.
"It's just a terrific circle of the community helping each other," Haddad said.
To donate or learn more about the Charitable Foundation, call Haddad at 330-337-2883 or check the hospital website at www.salemhosp.com.
SCH is the only hospital in the area with the 3-D software and the Dual-128 CT scanner, which generates 1,000 images of the lungs in a matter of seconds. A surgeon can then see the location of a tumor and the software shows what it looks like and measures its size, allowing for minimal surgery to prevent the cancer from spreading to other areas.
Apicella said the CT scanner can also scan the heart, the colon and the kidneys.
Mary Ann Greier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org