This post is by Ruth Sanchez, a third-year student at Dell Medical School.
Ruth Sanchez here. In my third year at Dell Med, I’m working on my Master’s in Public Health. I’ve been so excited to partner my passions — public health and medical care for people facing barriers to accessing care — by working with Mike Pignone, M.D., MPH, on an initiative funded by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) to address lung cancer in Travis County.
We’ve got some exciting stuff happening, and I wanted to bring you up to speed on the latest!
Why Should We Pay Attention to Lung Cancer?
According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), lung cancer is the No. 1 cause of cancer death in women and men nationwide. NCI estimated that in 2019, lung cancer would kill more people in the U.S. than breast cancer, prostate cancer and colon cancer combined. Lung cancer affects people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, but black men experience the highest number of new cases and deaths.
Here in Travis County, cancer is the leading cause of death — surpassing heart disease, historically the No. 1 cause of death — according to a 2017 Austin Public Health report. Lung cancer is the most common type of cancer and has the highest rate of cancer death. In fact, the report said lung cancer was the leading cause of cancer death in Travis County over a 15-year period.
What Can We Do About It?
People can take preventative measures against lung cancer. Tobacco smoking causes about 90% of lung cancer cases in men and about 80% of lung cancer cases in women, according to NCI. Not starting smoking is the best way to prevent lung cancer, and the state of Texas took a step toward preventing future cases by passing legislation to increase the legal age for tobacco purchase to 21.
Smoking Cessation & Lung Cancer Screening
For people who smoke, quitting smoking is the most effective way to reduce one’s risk of lung cancer. Helping Travis County residents to decrease or stop smoking is critical to stopping lung cancer in its tracks. As part of our CPRIT-funded program, we now have additional smoking cessation resources for patients who seek care within the CommUnityCare Health Centers (CUC).
In addition to taking advantage of smoking cessation resources to help quit, screening for early stage lung cancer with a CT scan of the chest is another option for reducing the chance of death from lung cancer. One reason lung cancer outcomes are so grave is that by the time you notice symptoms, it often has already spread to other parts of the body, making it more difficult to treat. To catch more lung cancers at early stages, lung cancer screening for people who are at the highest risk may be beneficial. Adults who are ages 55 to 77 and have a history of heavy smoking are good candidates to consider lung cancer screening.
What We’re Doing
Here’s what Dell Med and our partners are working on to address this serious health problem in our community.
Mike Pignone, M.D., MPH — the chair of the Department of Internal Medicine and director of the program on Cancer Prevention and Control at Livestrong Cancer Institutes — and our team at Dell Med were awarded a nearly $1 million grant from CPRIT in 2019 to promote smoking cessation and lung cancer screening in Travis County. This grant is critical to reducing the impact of lung cancer across the spectrum of disease. We will improve patient care and timely access to preventative interventions, diagnostics and treatments among people who are underinsured and people who may currently face barriers to accessing these necessary services.
Through our partnership with CUC, we will identify and refer current and former smokers ages 55 to 77 who meet the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force eligibility criteria for lung cancer screening: current smokers, or former smokers who have quit within the past 15 years, who have smoked heavily (at least 30 pack-years). Current tobacco users will be offered comprehensive, evidence-based intensive smoking cessation services.
Over the next three years, this innovative project will tackle the health impacts caused by smoking and lung cancer in Travis County. If successful, this collaborative project will offer a template of an efficient, effective and scalable system for how to tackle lung cancer across Texas and the nation.