Overall cancer death rates are down

So why is lung cancer still the top cancer killer of Kentuckians? Here’s what we are doing to turn the tables.

Anyone who has ever heard the words, “You have cancer” — or who loves someone who has heard them — will tell you these are life-changing words. Less than two years after my mother heard those words in 1988, she died from lung cancer that had spread to her brain. She was only 57 years old.

In the nearly three decades since then, cancer screenings and better treatment options are helping more people survive. In fact, there’s hope from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recent annual cancer report to the nation that states overall cancer deaths have declined 1.5 percent a year since 2003.

This report points to the fact that fewer people are smoking these days as a factor in a downward trend in lung cancer deaths. While this is good news, let’s not forget that lung cancer remains Kentucky’s — and our nation’s — leading cancer killer.

CDC data from 2012 (the latest year available) show Kentucky has the highest lung cancer incidence and death rates in the country. We also lead the nation in adult and youth smoking rates.

Together, the 4,000 Kentuckians diagnosed with lung cancer and the 3,400 who died from it in 2012 would fill all the seats at The Louisville Palace more than four times.

Lung cancer’s ability to lie low and avoid detection help keep it high on health care’s “most wanted” list. Symptoms — persistent cough, coughing up blood, shortness of breath, wheezing, hoarseness, chest pain and unexplained weight loss — may not appear until lung cancer has spread or reached an advanced stage.

“We know that smoking continues to be the No. 1 cause of lung cancer,” said Jenny Frantz, R.N., thoracic patient navigator who coordinates Norton Healthcare’s CT Lung Screening Program. “Screening is critical for people who have a history of smoking and others who are at high risk of developing lung cancer. Early detection gives us a chance to begin treatment when it can be most effective.”

Two major lung cancer risk factors are age (if you are 55 to 77 years old) and if you are a current or former smoker with a pack-or-more-a-day habit for over 30 years. A family history of lung cancer also bumps up your risk.

Norton Cancer Institute uses high-speed, low-dose CT scanning to screen for lung cancer. This quick, noninvasive and painless test can detect even the tiniest tumors, much smaller than what can be seen on a chest X-ray.

Once lung cancer is diagnosed, Norton Cancer Institute provides personalized treatment with a focus on compassion and maximizing care for the body, mind and spirit. Family members are a key part of a “whole person” approach built around four elements:

  • Same-day appointments with a cancer specialist that can be made by calling the Hope line at (502) 629-HOPE
  • A dedicated lung patient navigator to guide patients along every step of their journey from screening to diagnosis and treatment. 
  • A multidisciplinary lung cancer clinic so patients can see an oncologist, thoracic surgeon, radiation oncologist, counselor, nutritionist and other members of the care team all in one visit. 
  • Customized state-of-the-art treatment plans that include chemotherapy, radiation and access to numerous clinical trials.

When you’ve just heard three of life’s scariest words — you have cancer — care that focuses on your well-being and not just your diagnosis means everything.

When my mom’s lung cancer was diagnosed, it was two weeks before she could see a cancer specialist. While a faster appointment would not have changed her eventual outcome, at times like this no one should have to wait, worried about what they can expect and what happens next.

“Our job is to cure cancer and ease suffering,” said Joseph Flynn, D.O., executive director and physician-in-chief, Norton Cancer Institute. “Compassionate and effective care goes beyond the science and mechanics of treating cancer. It means we are here for patients when they need us most.”

– Menisa Marshall

If you are or were a smoker, or you are concerned about your lung health, take this fast, free lung cancer risk assessment to learn what you can do about your personal lung cancer risk factors.If you are interested in learning more about low-dose CT scanning or would like to schedule a lung cancer screening, contact your primary care physician or call (502) 629-LUNG.

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