BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - It may be unconventional, but the gift of a cancer screening under the Christmas tree could be a lifesaver.
November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month and doctors remind us that screenings for high-risk groups are critical. Each year, more people die of lung cancer than of breast, colon and prostate cancers combined. Lung cancer is the top cancer killer nationwide and Louisiana's rate of the disease is among the highest. That's one reason why Frank McArthur decided to get screened for the first time.
"I smoked through high school, college, graduate school, service…continuously," McArthur said. "I smoked a pack, two packs a day."
Decades later, there's a whole generation now at an increased risk for lung cancer. Those are people between the ages of 55 and 74 who have smoked within the last 15 years and smoked for at least 30 pack years. Pack years are calculated by multiplying the number of packs smoked each day by the number of years someone has smoked. For example, two packs a day for 15 years equals 30 pack years.
Those ages 50 or older with a smoking history of 20 pack years are also at higher risk with one or more additional risk factors:
The screening itself is a basic CT scan.
"It was simple. I just laid down on the table, went through the little machine, came out and he said, 'That's it,' and I went home. So, it didn't take 15 minutes. It's nothing to be afraid of. It's worth the peace of mind just to get it done," McArthur explained.
Dr. Charles Wood, a radiation oncologist at Mary Bird Perkins - Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center, said the test is quick and accurate. The key is getting it done early.
"No matter what the latest technology is or the latest treatment techniques, the number one prognostic factor - how's the patient going to do - is based on how early we catch this," Wood said.
In 2015, many private insurers will be required to cover lung cancer screenings for the high-risk group and a decision from Medicare is expected in a few months. However, fighting the stigma of the disease is just as important as the medical research.
"People feel at fault when they're diagnosed with lung cancer, because often, it's a disease of smokers, but it also affects a significant amount of non-smokers," Wood added.
Andy Trahan falls into that group. He is a non-smoker diagnosed with stage four lung cancer at age 33 due to a genetic mutation called ALK+. He serves as a stark reminder that lung cancer has no labels.
Mary Bird Perkins - Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center offers lung cancer screenings for $99 and a screening can be bought as a gift for a loved one.