Navy Veteran Jim Pantelas has spent the last 15 years working to fund new lung cancer research, combat patient stigma, and improve care for lung cancer patients. His mission is personal: He is a survivor of stage 3 lung cancer, with stage 4 lymph node involvement.
Working together with the Lung Cancer Alliance, now part of the GO2 Foundation for Lung Cancer, Pantelas frequently finds himself on Capitol Hill lobbying to increase funding for lung cancer research and early detection programs.
“Early screening is the single biggest thing that has hit lung cancer in forever. You can talk all you want about immunotherapies that are available for lung cancer, and they are wonderful. But they only treat 15% of the lung cancer population,” says Pantelas.
With lung cancer screening programs, physicians are catching more cancer earlier, when it is still treatable, says Pantelas. Historically, he notes, most lung cancers were caught at stage 4, when treatment options were limited.
Veterans are at greater risk of lung cancer
Some 900,000 Veterans are at risk of developing lung cancer due to older age, a history of smoking, and environmental exposures during or after military service. Each year, VA diagnoses 7,700 Veterans with lung cancer.
“In my era, Agent Orange was a given,” says Pantelas. “If you served a day in Vietnam and you got lung cancer, it was [presumed to be related to Agent Orange]. But it took 20 years to get there.”
VA has partnered with the GO2 Foundation to increase awareness about lung cancer screening and to improve outcomes for Veterans affected by lung cancer. The partnership will allow VA to share Veteran-centric information and resources via the foundation’s 750 Screening Centers of Excellence.
`Expand the array of services’
The GO2 Foundation developed a set of criteria for assessing screening programs in the earliest days of lung cancer screening, according to Pantelas. They created a Center of Excellence designation for high-quality screening programs. They also developed a set of guidelines to ensure that lung cancer screening was practiced in a safe, precise, and equitable way, calibrating low-dose computed tomography (CT) scanners to uniform levels.
“The VA-GO2 Foundation partnership will help expand the array of services that are currently available within VA,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie in a press release. “It will also increase public awareness about Veteran-specific conditions that place Veterans at greater risk for lung cancer.”
The GO2 Foundation was founded by patients and survivors to help transform the lives of people who have survived cancer. An important mission of the foundation is to increase funding for public and private lung cancer research.
Early lung cancer screening programs
Laurie Fenton, president and CEO of the GO2 Foundation, has been working to increase access to lung screening for Veterans for more than a decade. In 2012, her work with the former Under Secretary of Health Robert Petzel led to the establishment of the VA Lung Cancer Screening Demonstration Project.
Based on the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommendations on annual lung cancer screening, the project examined the feasibility of starting a screening program in a large integrated health care system, like VA.
In 2017, the project concluded that lung screening using low-dose CT scans is an important component of care for Veterans at high risk of lung cancer. The researchers noted that wide-spread implementation in a clinical setting would require further study.
Veterans have misconceptions about lung cancer screening
Veterans often hold misconceptions about the benefits of screening for lung cancer, according to research. VA investigators in Seattle conducted a study that examined Veterans’ perceptions about smoking and cancer screening. Nearly half of respondents incorrectly said that lung screening could reduce their risk of getting lung cancer.
This research underscores the need for well-defined messaging for Veterans on the benefits of screening for early detection of lung cancer, said the researchers. “Our results illustrate just how wide a gap exists between the expectations and the reality of lung cancer screening benefits among some groups of current smokers.”
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