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Snuffing Out the Fear of a Lung Cancer Diagnosis

Jeffrey Kwon, MD
Lung cancer screening is critical for individuals who are at risk for the disease, according to Jeffrey Kwon, MD, a pulmonologist at Bridgeport Hospital, which offers expert care through its Thoracic Oncology Program for patients diagnosed with lung cancer.

When people hear the words “lung cancer,” the world seems to stop. Fear grips their psyche, as they believe the diagnosis to be an instant death sentence. That is a myth that physicians at Bridgeport Hospital and the Smilow Cancer Hospital Care Center at Trumbull are prepared to bust wide open.

New cutting-edge lung cancer treatments are now helping patients – even those with advanced-stage lung disease – live years beyond past expectations. Today, physicians are looking toward a future where they can talk about this once-fatal disease as a chronic illness.

As with many other cancers, a key to surviving lung cancer is catching it in its earliest stages, when it is most treatable. For patients who have small, early-stage lung cancer, the cure rate can be as high as 90 percent, according to Vincent Mase, Jr., MD, site director of Bridgeport Hospital Thoracic Surgery, and an assistant professor of surgery (thoracic) at Yale School of Medicine.

“Early-stage lung cancers are much more amenable to better long-term control through surgery, radiation treatment and medical therapy, which is why screening is so important,” he said.

Personalized evaluation

The Lung Cancer Screening Program offered through Smilow Cancer Hospital Care Centers in Trumbull provides personalized evaluation to individuals who are at risk for lung cancer. Smoking, or exposure to tobacco products in any form, is the major risk factor.

“People between the ages of 50 and 80, who currently smoke or quit smoking within the past 15 years and have smoked an average of one pack per day for at least 20 years, should be screened for lung cancer,” said Jeffrey Kwon, MD, a pulmonologist at Bridgeport Hospital who is affiliated with Northeast Medical Group.

“Quitting smoking and avoiding second-hand smoke exposure are the most effective strategies to prevent the development of lung cancer,” Dr. Kwon said. “However, even after an individual stops smoking, the risk for lung cancer remains elevated up to 15 to 20 years later, which is why lung cancer screening is so important.”

Advancements in imaging technology have allowed for the development of low-dose computed tomography (CT) imaging, which offers nearly 80 percent less radiation exposure to patients than a standard CT, while delivering a highly accurate image, he noted.

Multidisciplinary care

To effectively manage lung cancer at any stage of the disease, the Center for Thoracic Cancers at Smilow Cancer Hospital and Yale Cancer Center offers expertise in radiology, pulmonology, radiation, medical oncology, and thoracic surgery to carry out its mission of lung cancer screening and lung cancer care.

Physicians first meet with patients to review available CT scans, biopsies and other test results. They also discuss each patient’s case at a bi-weekly multidisciplinary thoracic tumor board meeting and decide, as a team, on the best course of treatment. The program is continually expanding its services and adding new technologies to increase treatment options for patients with thoracic malignancies. Thoracic malignancies include lung cancer as well as other cancers located within the thoracic cavity or chest.

Medical oncologist Michael Cohenuram, MD, assistant professor of clinical medicine (medical oncology) at Yale Cancer Center, makes sure patients undergo appropriate molecular and genetic testing for their cancer to identify those who can best be treated with targeted therapy or immune therapy. "Targeted therapy works by targeting the Achilles' heel that exists in certain people's cancers, and it is often oral and well tolerated," Dr. Cohenuram explained. "Immune therapy allows our immune cells to attack the cancer, sometimes on its own and sometimes in conjunction with standard chemotherapy."

Dr. Cohenuram also participates in multiple clinical trials and draws upon the collective expertise of the national and international experts at Smilow Cancer Hospital and the Yale Cancer Center to offer patients with advanced lung cancer a wider array of options.

Future looks brighter

With tremendous progress in lung cancer care over the past decade, patient outcomes are improving every year. “Even for patients with stage 4 cancer that has already spread and is not operable, targeted immune therapies are enabling them to survive longer and even beat cancer,” Dr. Cohenuram said. “Fifteen years ago, the five-year survival rate for patients with stage 4 lung cancer was 1 in 20. Now it’s 1 in 3.

“When we talk about survival rates and a certain percentage of lung cancer patients being alive in five or 10 years, these are lives we are talking about,” Dr. Cohenuram said. “Those are years filled with weddings and vacations and grandkids being born. When we screen and diagnose lung cancer early enough, our patients get the gift of time.”

For more information about the Smilow Cancer Hospital Lung Cancer Screening Program, or to schedule a consultation, call 203-337-8779 or email [email protected]. Learn more about Bridgeport Hospital Cancer services.