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Updated: 18th October 2018 00:53

University of Calgary researcher raises call for lung cancer screening

A new national study has medical researchers saying there should be preventative screening for lung cancer, as there already is for breast, colon and prostate cancer.

Researcher wants province to fund preventative screening to catch early stage lung cancer

A Calgary doctor says many lives could be saved if the province would bring in a pubicly-funded lung cancer screening program. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

Judy Wiebe smoked for 50 years, but didn't get sick.

Not even a sniffle.

"I don't get colds or flu or sick of any kind," she said, in an interview with CBC Radio's Jennifer Lee.

In 2015, she discovered a research study on Facebook, being offered by the University of Calgary, to do preventative screening for lung cancer.

Although she had quit smoking for several years, Wiebe signed up. She was accepted into the program and was screened using a CT scan.

When the results came back, something wasn't quite right.

"They said there was an abnormality in my scan and would I come back in?" Wiebe said. 

Judy Wiebe, seen here with University of Calgary researcher Dr. Alain Tremblay, volunteered for lung cancer screening in 2015. The smoker discovered she had cancer, which was diagnosed early, operated on, and removed. She is now cancer-free. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

She had lung cancer.

An operation was scheduled, and a tumour the size of a grape was removed.

"Everything went very smoothly," said Wiebe. "They're very professional here. They know what they're doing. It was very early (as a diagnosis)."

"I missed a week of work," Wiebe said. "I missed a season of curling, too."

Two years later, Wiebe remains cancer-free.

No. 1 cancer killer in Canada is lung cancer

Preventative screening programs exist in Alberta for breast, colon and prostate cancer.

The No. 1 cancer killer in Canada is lung cancer. In Alberta, more than 2,000 people a year are diagnosed with lung cancer.

A University of Calgary researcher hopes a new national study will encourage the Alberta government to add lung cancer to the list of things it does preventative screening for.

The study, published in The Lancet Oncology, was designed to assess the efficacy of a risk prevention model to catch lung cancer in patients as early as possible.

The cancer prediction model used in the study incorporated a variety of factors, including age, smoking duration, pack-years smoked, body mass index and education level.

Early diagnosis is key

The national study screened 2,537 people, with lung cancer detected in 6.5 per cent of them. Of those, 75 per cent were diagnosed as either Stage 1 or 2, which is considered early stages and is often curable.

That's a conversation University of Calgary researcher Dr. Alain Tremblay would prefer to have with patients.

"As a Canadian study, these results are very important," he said. "Each province is trying to decide whether lung cancer screening is something that should be funded by the health care system," 

"I spend a lot of my clinical time diagnosing people with lung cancer, and it's one of the most difficult conversations that we have to have," he said. "Unfortunately, in the majority of these cases, we have to tell these patients that their cancer is not going to be curable.

"In the end, I want to detect the cancer earlier, so that we can cure them," he said. "That's really important. Without screening, we're not going to achieve that."

"The cure rates from early screen detected cancers are in the 90 per cent range, whereas overall, it's 17 per cent, so it's quite a difference," he added.

Tremblay estimated that between 100,000 and 130,000 Albertans would qualify for lung cancer screening, although he didn't expect that everyone would actually go for screening.

"But even if 50 per cent presented themselves for screening, it's still a large group of people," he said.

"To save one life, you need to screen 200 to 250 people," he said. "That's kind of the ratio we see in Alberta. If you're screening 50,000 people, that starts to add up. So you're saving many lives from this disease."

It's also more cost-friendly, Tremblay said.

There are cost savings

"There's no doubt it takes resources. This is not something that would be free for the health care system. There are some cost savings in terms of treatment for advanced lung cancer, which is becoming extremely expensive, with all the really amazing new drugs that are coming on the market and helping our patients tremendously.

"But they're really expensive. And they don't tend to cure people," he said. "They do prolong lives, but they don't cure people. So if we can actually change the whole clinical presentation of the disease to earlier stage, there'll be some cost savings there as well."

Wiebe participated in a different screening program than the most recent PanCanadian study, but it used the same benchmarks. For her, the opportunity to participate in a preventative screening program has literally been life-changing.

"I'd be in very bad shape by now," she said. 

The program continues to monitor Wiebe's health, to make sure her cancer doesn't recur.

"They're taking good care of me," she said. "They didn't just say there's your surgery. Bye bye. They're watching, and if there's anything, they'll find it — and if not. Hey. I'm 80 years old."

Jennifer Lee, CBC News

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