PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A Miriam Hospital researcher is making it her research mission to figure out why patients who are most at risk of lung cancer aren’t being screened for the deadly disease — and to motivate them to get screened.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States, and nearly 143,000 people are estimated to die of lung cancer this year alone, according to stats from the American Cancer Society. Furthermore, more people die of lung cancer than from colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined.
But symptoms of lung cancer often don’t start until it’s advanced into later stages.
When detected early, the chances of surviving lung cancer increase significantly.
Maureen Tuffy is a success story. After having smoked for some 40 years — since she was 15 years old — she finally quit smoking last year. However, just three months later, she got the news many see as a death sentence. She had lung cancer.
“They found a node, and it was actively growing,” she said Friday. “I’m extremely lucky that it was caught when it was.”
She had no symptoms. The lung cancer was in Stage 1.
It was detected thanks to a CAT scan ordered by her primary care physician. The cancerous nodule was removed by surgical oncologist Thomas Ng, MD, of the Lifespan Cancer Institute.
Lung cancer screenings like that have been covered by insurance since 2011, but are hardly ever used, said Dr. Douglas Martin, a pulmonologist with the Lung Cancer Screening Clinic of the Lifespan Cancer Institute.
“Only three to four percent of people that are potentially eligible for these scans have gotten them so far,” he said.
Enter Dr. Sandra Japuntich, a research scientist at Miriam. She wants to figure out why the screening rates are so low, and how to motivate former and current smokers to get them done.
“There are patient barriers to getting lung cancer screening, including lack of knowledge, or fear of the screen or its result. There are also provider barriers as well; providers might not know how to refer patients to screening,” she said.
Japuntich has been awarded more than $700,000 from the American Cancer Society to help in her research — with the hope of more patient success stories ending like Tuffy’s.
“There are days that I cry because I am so happy,” she said. “It’s a big second chance, I believe.”
Dr. Japuntich expects her research to be complete in June 2021.