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New report says more work needs to be done to reduce rates of lung cancer

Alaska is falling behind in multiple areas regarding lung cancer according to a report released on Tuesday (Nov 14) from the American Lung Association. The report revealed shocking statistics about early diagnoses of the disease in the state, and experts say more work needs to happen to reduce the rates of lung cancer. 

Alaska ranked in the bottom ten (42) in the nation for early diagnosis of lung cancer. That’s according to the 2023 “State of Lung Cancer” report, an annual report which examines indicators of the disease and the heavy effects that lung cancer can have. That means the state is among the worst in the nation for detecting lung cancer in early stages.  

Cancer is the leading cause of death in Alaska. The association’s Senior Director of Advocacy, Carrie Nyssen, said that if you have lungs, you can get lung cancer.

“People often think that lung cancer is a disease that other people get,” she said. “There’s a misconception that you’re only going to get lung cancer, if you smoke and use tobacco.”

Only about 24% of lung cancer cases in the state were diagnosed early and even fewer eligible residents received screening according to the report, which Nyssen said is a problem. When lung cancer is detected early, she said it increases the survival rate because patients can opt in for treatment. 

Alaska ranked among the lowest nationwide (37) for surgery, but Nyssen said she expects the number would increase if high risk patients received annual scans that detect the cancer.

“If we could get some people to get that early diagnosis, I think they would be more likely to have that surgical option.”

Last year less than 4% of high risk Alaskans were screened for lung cancer despite it being the deadliest cancer nationwide according to reports from the Center of Disease Control. Nyssen said people should begin annual tests once they turn 50 or have a history of smoking.

“A 20 year pack history means you would have smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for 20 years, or two packs of cigarettes a day for 10 years,” she explained. “Then to have been a current smoker, or to have quit within the past 15 years.”

The report said Indigenous Peoples are most likely to be diagnosed with lung cancer, but the disease’s overall survival rate for people of color has increased 17% in just two years (2017-2019). Nyssen said they aren’t sure why, but she’s happy the number is increasing. 

“We are making progress in most vulnerable populations, as well as the general population. So we don’t know why but we’re really happy that we’re seeing that movement.”

A report issued by the Department of Health earlier this year (Feb.) found significantly higher rates of lung and bronchial cancer in Northwestern Alaska. Nyssen the best way to prevent lung cancer is to receive regular screenings.

The 2023 “State of Lung Cancer” report is available on the American Lung Association website.

Photo at top: A doctor checks a patients lungs with a stethoscope. (Courtesy of the American Lung Association)

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