Tennessee lung cancer cases, survival rates among the worst, but experts say more early detection will help

Staff file photo by Erin O. Smith / A man holds a cigarette as he smokes outside the Hamilton County-Chattanooga Courts Building on Jan. 9, 2019.

Tennessee ranks among the worst of the states for new lung cancer cases and lung cancer survival rates, according to a new report that examines the toll of lung cancer across the nation.

The nationwide five-year lung cancer survival rate improved from 17.2% a decade ago to 21.7% today due to improved screening and treatments. However, Tennessee's five-year lung cancer survival rate is well below the national rate at 18.7%, according to the annual "State of Lung Cancer" report released by the American Lung Association on Wednesday. Alabama's survival rate - 16.8% - is the nation's worst, and Georgia's survival rate is 19.3%.

"While we celebrate that more Americans than ever are surviving lung cancer, the disease remains the leading cause of cancer deaths, and much more can and must be done in Tennessee to prevent the disease and support families facing the disease," Shannon Baker, director of advocacy for the Lung Association, said in a news release.

Part of the reason that lung cancer is so deadly is because most lung cancer cases are diagnosed at a later stage, after the disease has spread.

Rob Headrick, chief of thoracic surgery at CHI Memorial Hospital, said getting more people screened - especially those with a history of tobacco use or secondhand exposure - is key to preventing more lung cancer deaths.

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"If you find lung cancer early, it's really easy to treat and cure," Headrick said. "If you find it late or you wait until you have symptoms or something's wrong, then it's extremely difficult and incredibly expensive to try to take care of."

Headrick said screening is quick, easy and available to people who live in rural areas through Memorial's mobile lung unit. People who are worried they are at risk can call Memorial at 423-495-LUNG (5864) for more information or to schedule an appointment.

In most cases, private insurance and Medicare will cover lung cancer screening for high-risk individuals, such as older adults with a history of smoking. Headrick said help is available for those without insurance or ability to pay, since catching lung cancer early costs the health care system less money in the long run.

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Other key findings from the report:

* On average, a higher prevalence of smoking leads to more lung cancer cases. The smoking rate in Tennessee is 22.6%, significantly higher than the national rate of 16.4%. It ranks 48th among all states, placing it in the bottom tier.

* The national rate of new lung cancer cases is 59.6 out of 100,000 people. Tennessee ranks 47th in the nation (out of 51) for new lung cancer cases at a rate of 75.5 people out of 100,000 people.

* Lung cancer screening is the key to early detection, when the disease is most curable. The report found that only 21.5% of lung cancer cases nationally are diagnosed at an early stage and only 3.7% of those eligible in Tennessee have been screened.

(Read more: Hamilton County's public schools have never been tested for radon, second-leading cause of lung cancer)

The 2019 report uses data from the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and American College of Radiology, among other sources. Analysis of this data is conducted by the American Lung Association Epidemiology and Statistics team. Learn more about "State of Lung Cancer" at lung.org/solc.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.