New Early Lung Cancer Screening Program Seeks to Save Veterans’ Lives

Former Military Personnel at Higher Risk

By Sandra Basu

Vietnam veteran Thomas Murphy, one of the guest speaker at a kick-off ceremony for a lung cancer screening program at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Nov. 8, is a lung cancer survivor. -Photo by Bernard S. Little

BETHESDA, MD – In late 2005, Thomas J. Murphy, a veteran who served in the Marine Corps during the 1970s, heard a radio advertisement seeking volunteers who were former smokers to participate in a lung cancer early detection CT screening study.

“I heard that ad a number of times during the next few days before I decided to enroll,” he said about the study conducted by the International Early Lung Cancer Assessment Program.

At that time, Murphy said he had no lung cancer symptoms but was concerned for several reasons: His father had died from lung cancer, and Murphy was both a former smoker and had possible Agent Orange exposure, for which he was later granted disability status by the VA.

Through participation in the screening study, he received an early diagnosis of lung cancer in 2010 and underwent surgery. He credits that for saving his life.

“It has been over two years since my surgery,” Murphy said. “I have completed two Army 10-milers, the Ocean City half-marathon and other events. Most importantly, I got to see my first grandchild.”

Murphy told his story recently at an event held at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC) for a new program to raise lung cancer awareness among veterans and offer screening. Representatives from Lung Cancer Alliance, the Vietnam Veterans America and Team Draft also attended the gathering.

“The state of lung cancer is unacceptable,” said Chris Draft, a former National Football League player who is the force behind Team Draft and the founder of the Chris Draft Family Foundation. Draft’s wife, who was never a smoker, died of Stage IV lung cancer a month after their wedding.

Lung Cancer Screening

As part of WRNMMC’s new lung cancer screening program, patients at high risk for lung cancer will be offered screening, including the use of low dose computed tomography (CT) scans. WRNMMC is the first DoD facility to offer this type of program for veterans who are at high risk for lung cancer.

“Many of our veterans, folks who are beneficiaries, who served in Vietnam and other theaters of war and the present conflict theaters of Afghanistan and the recent Iraq, are at higher risk than the general population to develop lung cancer,” said Col. Craig Shriver, interim director of the Walter Reed Comprehensive Cancer Center and chief of General Surgery, Bethesda, MD, during a presentation on the new initiative.

More Americans die of lung cancer than any other type of cancer, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, and the risk is higher for veterans. According to screening literature provided by WRNMMC, veterans have a 25-30% higher risk of lung cancer than their civilian counterparts, due to not only smoking, but also Agent Orange, radon, asbestos, diesel fuel exhaust and other battlefield emissions.

Shriver explained that a challenge has been that lung cancer had previously lacked the screening programs and effective strategies for early detection for other types of cancers. New research, however, has changed that.

In 2010, a National Cancer Institute-funded trial found a 20% reduction in deaths from lung cancer among current or former heavy smokers who were screened with low-dose helical CT, versus those screened by chest X-ray.

“That exceeds the ability to reduce death from breast cancer using screening mammography. That is the impressive extent of which this screening can achieve,” Shriver said.

Shriver told U.S. Medicine that the screening program goes beyond only a CT. Patients also sit with a healthcare provider to go through a set of screening questions to determine whether they are in the high-risk group for lung cancer.

If determined to be high risk, veterans can undergo annual low dose CT scanning.

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