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Cancer center begins lung screening trial

By Kylene Kiang,Daily Staff Reporter
September 19, 2002

In its early phases, the symptoms of lung cancer are virtually imperceptible - a chronic cough or chest pain may not be enough to send most people to see a doctor. Yet when symptoms do become noticeable, the cancer is often in its advanced stages.

In an effort to improve lung cancer detection, the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center announced yesterday its participation in a national lung screening trial headed by the National Cancer Institute. The trial, which involves the participation of other cancer study centers across the nation, will recruit 50,000 smokers and ex-smokers between the ages of 55 and 75 whose health will be journalized for the next several years.

The study will focus primarily on evaluating the strength of spiral computed tomography scans and X-rays in detecting small tumors in the lungs. Researchers will scan patients' lungs for the first three years and then follow their health progression for up to eight years. If the findings show significant effects in detection and mortality rates, it will serve as a stimulus for doctors to encourage smokers to get their lungs scanned regularly.

"In the last few years, CT scans have been shown to pick up small cancers, and it's become much easier to see those small cancers with a CT scan than with a chest X-ray," said Ella Kazerooni, study leader and director of thoratic radiology at the University.

Effective and reliable detection are ultimately what the study hopes to achieve in the face of the nation's high mortality rate for lung cancer. Eighty-five percent of people diagnosed with lung cancer will die from it.

"People may be familiar with mammography, used to screen for breast cancer, or physical exams, blood tests and endoscopy that are done to look for prostate cancer or colon cancer," Kazerooni said. "But currently there is no way to screen for lung cancer."

Kazerooni said that oftentimes lung cancer is found when symptoms like a new cough arise. She added that "the majority of people with lung cancer are diagnosed when the disease is advanced, making a cure very difficult. Unfortunately, when lung cancer is very small, say the size of a fingernail, it's very hard to pick up, and doesn't make symptoms."

Lung cancer takes many years to develop, but changes in the lungs can begin almost immediately as a person is exposed to carcinogenic substances. A few abnormal cells may appear in the lining of the main breathing tubes soon after exposure occurs.

If a person continues to be exposed to the cancer-causing substance, more abnormal cells will accumulate, leading to the possible formation of a tumor.

Symptoms of advanced lung cancer include chronic cough, hoarseness, coughing up blood, weight loss and loss of appetite, shortness of breath and chest pain.

Each year the number of Americans who die from lung cancer outnumbers the deaths of colon, prostate, breast and ovarian cancers combined. Last year alone approximately 157,400 Americans died of lung cancer, while more than 165,000 were diagnosed.

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