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Why I’m passionate about lung cancer screening

Vicki Goodman, vice president, therapeutic area head, oncology late-stage development, on the link between screening, early detection and outcomes in lung cancer

May 11, 2021

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My interest in research goes back to my childhood – I was always curious about science and the world around me. I needed to know how things worked, why they worked. As I got older, I wanted to find a way to apply this interest to helping people. And when I was in medical school, I found my opportunity. At the time, scientists were starting to make significant advances in understanding cancer, and I wanted to be a part of this endeavor. I knew many people whose lives were touched by the disease, including my own family. Looking back over the past two decades, I am pleased to say that great progress has been made since I first joined the research field.

Lung cancer remains the deadliest cancer among both men and women in the U.S., resulting in more deaths than colon, breast and prostate cancers combined. We must improve the rates of early detection – supporting routine screenings, so lung cancer is diagnosed when there is a greater chance of survival.

Early diagnosis can make a big difference

Below figures from American Lung Association in 2020

The difference between an early versus advanced stage lung cancer diagnosis can be life altering.

When the disease is detected before it has spread to other parts of the body, the five-year survival rate is 59%. In stark contrast, this falls to just 6% when it is advanced.

Unfortunately, only 23% of lung cancer cases are diagnosed early.  But we can work together to change these statistics – starting by improving the rates of annual screenings among those eligible. The American Lung Association estimates that if everyone eligible were screened, close to 48,000 lives could be saved in the U.S. 

Routine screening rates are low, but changes are in store

The data on lung cancer screening rates shows we still have important work to do. In 2019, only 5.7% of Americans at high risk were screened.  There are many reasons people choose not to get screened, but patients have often told me they were afraid of ultimately receiving a lung cancer diagnosis or they were worried they would be judged because they had smoked. We must work together to overcome these fears, encouraging people at high risk to prioritize their health and make annual screenings part of their routine.

I am hopeful that the new guidelines from the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF), which expanded the lung cancer screening criteria, could help improve screening rates. In fact, the Task Force estimates that the changes could nearly double the number of Americans who qualify for screenings. They may also increase access to screenings among women and African Americans, who may have previously been excluded because of lighter smoking histories (i.e., 20 pack-years). 

We can all make a difference

Each of us can make an impact on improving lung cancer screening rates. I encourage everyone to learn about the new USPSTF screening guidelines and talk to their loved ones who are at high risk. By supporting one another and standing together to raise awareness about the importance of screenings, we will continue to drive advances against lung cancer.