Saving lives through early cancer detection

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A new program at Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center aims to save veterans’ lives through early cancer detection — and it’s working.

Last year, Houston VA began conducting annual screenings using low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) scans for veterans ages 50 to 80 who are at high risk for lung cancer because of their smoking history.

“Since the beginning of our new lung cancer screening program in May 2021, we have already identified 12 veterans with non-small cell lung cancer,” said Dr. Stephen Bujarski, Head of the Lung Cancer Screening Program. “Fortunately, most of these were found in early stages. Nine of the 12 veterans were Stage 1 and 2 others were Stage 2. The good news is all are being treated and doing well.”

Army veteran Lawrence Jamerson was one of those veterans. “Houston VA scanned my lungs and found the cancer early, before it became a real problem,” he said. “I cannot thank the lung cancer screening team enough. That could have saved my life.”

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. The goal of the program is to find it early enough to cure it in more people at high risk from their smoking history. For these people, annual LDCT scans can reduce the risk of death from the cancer by 20 to 25%, large studies have found.

“We are excited to move the stage of lung cancer to earlier stages at the time of diagnosis and improve survival rates and quality of life for our veterans,” said Rommel Gonzales, Lung Cancer Screening Navigator.

Lung cancer begins when abnormal cells in the lungs grow out of control. Unfortunately, lung cancer often doesn’t cause symptoms until it has spread to other parts of the body. However, the most common type – non-small cell lung cancer – can sometimes be cured if caught early enough.

Smoking is the main cause of lung cancer

“We emphasize that the best way to reduce a veteran’s risk of dying from lung cancer is to quit smoking. If they have already quit, we encourage them to continue quitting smoking,” said Bujarski, who is also an assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine. “Lung cancer screening has been shown to be effective in reducing overall lung cancer mortality. The ultimate goal of our program is to screen all veterans at risk for lung cancer.”

In its first year, Houston VA has evaluated nearly 1,000 veterans under the program. About 600 low-dose CT scans were performed. These numbers are expected to double next year.

“We are working with our primary care providers to identify potential patients and use alerts in VA’s electronic health record,” said Barbara Knugler, lung cancer screening navigator. “This is not just a push by Houston VA, but part of a broader VA initiative.”

If you need help quitting smoking, call 1-855-QUIT VET (1-855-784-8838). For more information on lung cancer screening, contact your VA healthcare provider or visit www.prevention.va.gov/docs/LungCancerScreeningHandout.pdf.

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