UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center Opens Lung Cancer Screening Clinic

The University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center launched a new comprehensive lung cancer screening clinic as part of the institution’s lung cancer screening program. The program launched last month, just in time for Lung Cancer Awareness month in November, and can help more people get the lung cancer screening they need.

“Lung cancer is one of the deadliest cancers,” Akshu Balwan, MD, a UNM pulmonologist, says. “It is the leading cause of cancer-related mortality in the US and worldwide.”

According to the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) program, almost 240,000 Americans are expected to receive a lung cancer diagnosis in 2023. And lung cancer is expected to cause 127,000 deaths, more than the next two deadliest cancers combined.

In New Mexico, 960 people will be diagnosed with the disease and 560 will succumb to it, according to American Cancer Society estimates.

Yet only 2% of eligible New Mexicans get screened for lung cancer.

The UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center’s lung cancer screening team wants to change this statistic. People in New Mexico face many barriers to lung cancer screening, Balwan says. The new clinic at UNM Cancer Center, although in its pilot stage, is making screening more accessible.

“Lung cancer screening is an evidence-based screening test to detect cancer — hopefully at early stages,” Balwan explains. “Numerous clinical trials have shown it to be effective.”

When lung cancer is caught in its early stages, patients have more treatment options and are far less likely to lose their battle to the disease.

Up to 90% of people diagnosed with stage 1 lung cancer can survive for five years or more with the right treatment, Balwan says. But when the cancer spreads beyond the lungs, the 5-year survival rate plunges to less than 10%.

Despite being approved 10 years ago, lung cancer screening is only sporadically offered in New Mexico. The new dedicated lung cancer screening program at UNM will systematically offer screening to eligible people and evaluate those who receive abnormal screening test results.

“Smoking is the number one identified cause of lung cancer,” Balwan says. “Current or former smokers should discuss lung cancer screening with their PCP [primary care provider].”

The screening requires a yearly computed tomography (CT) scan. This scan uses lower doses of X-ray radiation to minimize long-term effects from exposure. Those who have higher risk for lung cancer benefit from these annual scans.

The United States Preventive Services Task Force evaluated the numerous clinical studies, and its website describes its recommendation for who would benefit most from screening.

The lung cancer screening program is developing the capacity and tools to screen large numbers of people for lung cancer. In the program’s pilot phase, the team is refining their clinical procedures and bringing new equipment online.

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