Medical Center of Trinity screening program aims to find, treat lung cancer early

Amy Hamm, Lung Nodule Program coordinator at Medical Center of Trinity, and Mathew Ninan, thoracic surgeon and the medical center’s Thoracic Surgery and Lung Nodule Program director.

TRINITY — Early detection is of critical importance when it comes to cancer survival rates.

According to data from the GO2 Foundation for Lung Cancer, that form of cancer has one of the lowest five-year survival rates, at only 18%.

The nonprofit advocacy foundation also reports that the five-year survival rate for lung cancer drops dramatically from a stage 1 diagnosis (68-92%) to a stage 4 diagnosis (0-10%).

Early detection rates may begin to further improve, experts at Medical Center of Trinity believe, after the national criteria for those eligible for lung cancer screenings were relaxed last month.

On March 9, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force published a final recommendation statement on screening for lung cancer in people who do not have signs or symptoms. The report recommends yearly screening using a low-dose computed tomography (CT) scan for people aged 50-80 years old who are at high risk for lung cancer because of their smoking history.

The task force’s recommendation includes two changes “that will nearly double the number of people eligible for lung cancer screening,” the report states. The first drops the age to begin screening from 55 to 50. The second reduces the pack-years of smoking history that make someone eligible for screening from 30 pack-years to 20.

A pack-year, the March 9 report explains, is a way of calculating how much a person has smoked. One pack-year is the equivalent of smoking an average of 20 cigarettes, or one pack, per day for a year.

“Getting the public to know that, if they have that kind of a history, they should push for screening when they meet with their physicians is a very good message to get out there,” said Mathew Ninan, thoracic surgeon and Medical Center of Trinity’s Thoracic Surgery and Lung Nodule Program director.

“With the lungs, even though it is an equally common cancer (to breast cancer), the screenings have not been taken up that well,” Ninan said. “Only a small percentage of the people who are supposed to be screened do get screened.”

Medical Center of Trinity’s Lung Cancer Screening Program began about two years ago, leading to “considerable progress in what we are offering,” Ninan said. “Before two years ago I think a lot of patients were probably going down to Tampa for treatment. But now things have changed dramatically.”

Screening for lung cancer isn’t just for current smokers, either, said Amy Hamm, Lung Nodule Program coordinator at Medical Center of Trinity.

“I think there’s also a misconception with patients and providers that if I quit smoking 10 years ago, I should be fine by now, my lungs have healed themselves,” Hamm said while speaking alongside Ninan from an office within the hospital last week. “But that’s not true. If you’ve quit within 15 years, you still are at-risk and we need to get you this low-dose CT, which is safe.”

The growth of Medical Center of Trinity’s Thoracic Surgery and Long Nodule Program in recent years not only helps detect lung cancer earlier, it offers patients the convenience of receiving treatments more quickly and at one location, Ninan and Hamm said.

“One of the benefits to using minimally invasive robotic surgery techniques is that with one visit and one general anesthesia, (Ninan) can do a bronchoscopy, get a diagnosis right on the spot in the OR, and then turn around and take it out,” Hamm said. “So the patient doesn’t have to have a biopsy, go home, wait for the results, then come back and have surgery. Everything is done right then and there.”

“What we’ve done is we’ve telescoped all this as much as possible,” Ninan said, explaining that treatments and procedures can take place within the same day. Circumstances differ from case to case, but patients found to have early stage lung cancer would receive same-day treatment, stay at the hospital for a 48-hour observation period, and then go home. “Very early stage cancers, they don’t need any further treatment. This is all that there is.”