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John Muir Health to Implement New, National Lung Cancer Screening Recommendation for High-Risk Patients

Key research by physicians and staff contributed to landmark decision

Walnut Creek, Calif. (Aug. 27, 2013) – Since 2007, John Muir Health’s Clinical Research Center has been participating in a large-scale research project alongside dozens of other hospitals around the world as part of the International Early Lung Cancer Action Program (I-ELCAP) and has screened 250 patients to date. The study quantifies the benefits of low dose CT scans for early lung cancer detection in high-risk patients – current and former heavy smokers ages 40 to 80.

The results of this and similar studies indicate that heavy smokers who undergo low dose CT scans compared to being screened with an X-ray have a 20 percent lower risk of dying from lung cancer. Based on these research findings, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), an independent panel focused on prevention and evidence-based medicine, is recommending the screening as the new treatment standard for current and former smokers ages 55 to 80 who have smoked a pack a day for 30 years or two packs a day for 15 years, including those who have quit within the past 15 years.

“I believe this new screening standard will bring about a sea change in how lung cancer is detected and treated,” said Dr. Michaela Straznicka, co-medical director of John Muir Health’s Thoracic (Lung/Esophageal) Program. “I’m very proud that John Muir Health was part of the research that led to a decision that will have a significant impact for high-risk patients in the communities we serve.”

“Because of John Muir Health’s participation in the I-ELCAP study, our doctors and staff are extremely well-trained and we have well-established protocols to provide this screening and make an accurate diagnosis based on the findings,” said Suzanne Clements, RN BSN CCRC, the lead research coordinator of the study at John Muir Health. “The best prevention for lung cancer is not smoking at all, but for those who do smoke or recently have quit, a low dose CT scan is a very important diagnostic tool.”

Today, lung cancer is usually not detected until patients begin to show symptoms and consult a doctor. By then, the cancer has generally reached a later-stage (III or IV) and is extremely difficult to cure – nearly 90 percent of lung cancer patients die from the disease. According to the American Lung Association, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death for men and women in the United States. It caused 160,000 deaths in 2012, which is greater than those caused by colorectal, breast, pancreatic and prostate cancers combined. By using low dose CT scans to catch the cancer much earlier, doctors will now be able to offer more treatment options and save more lives. Lung cancers that are identified when they are small, and in the earliest stage, can be treated surgically to achieve cure rates as high as 94 percent.

“John Muir Health is at the forefront of finding and treating early stage cancers,” said Dr. Straznicka. “The key is not only identifying these tumors, but then also having the expertise to successfully treat patients using minimally invasive surgical techniques with extremely low complication rates.”

"Our longstanding involvement in the study puts us ahead of the curve in being able to deliver a high level of patient care through our development, refinement, and interpretation of screening chest CT examinations. This experience is important when searching for lesions that could be as small as the tip of a pen," said Dr. Sunil Gandhi, the lead radiologist on the lung cancer screening study for John Muir Health.

The final screening recommendation will be issued in three to six months and, under the benefits established by the Affordable Care Act, will be covered at no cost to patients as a preventive service. Currently, patients must pay out-of-pocket for the screening unless they have been part of the clinical trial.

“We applaud the efforts of John Muir Health. They are leaders in the lung cancer screening field and have put the needs of those at risk first and foremost. We commend them,” said Laurie Fenton Ambrose, President and CEO of the Lung Cancer Alliance, a national non-profit that advocates for better lung cancer screening protocols. “Screening those at high risk now will dramatically make a difference and will open the door to much faster advances in research on all stages of lung cancer. It’s a game-changer.”

For people at high-risk for lung cancer, the effects of the new recommendations could be similar to how mammography changed the way women are screened for breast cancer.

“It’s the same process we went through with mammography. It took years and years and now it’s the standard of care for women around the world,” said Dr. Straznicka. “Once insurance companies begin to cover low-dose CT scans for lung cancer screening, high-risk patients can have the security of having this life-saving scan annually.”

For more information about the study and John Muir Health’s cancer services, please visit or call 947-3322.

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