Our great state of Kentucky is known for many things…horse racing, bourbon, bluegrass music, college basketball, and Kentucky Fried Chicken to name a few. Unfortunately, Kentucky is also known for having the highest rate of lung cancer. While tobacco production has significantly decreased over the past 20 years, our beloved state still leads the nation in having the highest incidence rate (new cases) of lung cancer, and high smoking rates have undoubtedly contributed to this.
People who smoke cigarettes are 15 to 30 times more likely to get lung cancer or die from lung cancer than people who do not smoke. Even smoking a few cigarettes a day or smoking occasionally increases the risk of lung cancer. However, smoking isn’t the only risk factor for lung cancer. Other risk factors include secondhand smoking, radon (a naturally occurring gas that forms in rocks, soil, and water), family history of lung cancer, radiation therapy to the chest and diet.
After considering the initial risk factors, there are a few more specifics that define those as being high risk for lung cancer: age, smoking history and smoking status. If you fall between the age of 50-80 years, if you have a smoking history of 20 or more pack years (this means 1 pack a day for 20 years, 2 packs a day for 10 years, etc.) and if you are currently smoking or have stopped smoking within the last 15 years are all factors that qualify someone for being at high risk of having lung cancer.
According to the American Lung Association, in Kentucky, 15% of those at high risk were screened, which was significantly higher than the national rate of 6%. Screening for lung cancer with annual low-dose CT scans among those at high risk can reduce the lung cancer death rate by up to 20% by detecting tumors at early stages when they are more likely to be curable. For screening to be most effective in reducing the overall lung cancer mortality rate, more of the high risk population should be screened.
Based on new research, in March of 2021, the United States Preventive Services Task Force expanded its recommendation for screening to include a larger age range and more current and former smokers. Since the early diagnosis rate in Kentucky falls into the below average tier, our state still has work to do to make sure that more of those at high risk for lung cancer are screened. If you meet the criteria for being at a high risk for lung cancer, I encourage you to reach out to your provider or family physician. If you know someone who is high risk, encourage them to be screened. You may extend or save a life.