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Worth a Thousand Words: A Picture That Saves Smokers' Lives

by Cole Rokke

June 2024

With its estimated current number of 1,700 smokers, recent public health surveys show that compared to 2021, there are fewer smokers across Barnes County. Despite this decrease, for those who smoke, who are attempting to quit, or who've recently picked up the habit, it's important to know that smoking remains the number one cause of lung cancer. Lung cancer is hard to treat if not found early. Fortunately, for individuals still smoking or those who have quit, there is a yearly early detection test.

The cancer-causing power of a cigarette isn't just in the puff, it's in the chemicals that are inhaled into the lungs. These chemicals trigger normal lung cells to transform into cancer. These lung cancer cells are sneaky. They don't give away their location until they've grown big enough to cause a cough that won't go away, or a cough that produces blood, or even chest pain with breathing and shortness of breath. Another sign that lung cancer is present is weight loss despite no change in what someone eats.

In addition to encouraging smokers to stop smoking, healthcare providers also recommend having an X-ray test done that will detect lung cancer early. Also called a screening test, it's a special type of CT or CAT scan called a “low-dose CT scan” – low dose because it uses only small doses of X-ray power. Because it can uncover lung cancer early when it's only a tiny problem in the lung, this CT scan can either save a life or allow early treatment that can help add time to someone living with lung cancer.

Getting this CT scan is easy. No needle pokes are necessary as a patient simply lies on a table in a large, circular scanner. Sometimes, the patient is asked to hold their breath for a few seconds to fill the lungs. The patient might hear some clicking or whirring noises as the machine moves around their body, taking pictures from all different angles. These images are then combined by a computer to create a detailed picture of the lungs.

When should a smoker or ex-smoker get a low-dose CT scan? It depends on how many cigarettes smoked and age. The number of cigarettes smoked needs to meet the count of one pack of cigarettes each day for 20 years. This also translates to a smoking history of two packs a day for 10 years or if someone now age 60 has smoked a half a pack a day since age 20. Even if someone quit smoking 15 years ago but smoked enough to meet this amount, testing is an option.

Age is the second factor. Screening starts at age 50 and continues until 80. It's important to know that this low dose CT scan can be done yearly to make sure lung cancer is caught as soon as possible. Barnes County residents can check with their healthcare provider about where they can get the test.

Although Barnes County smoking trends seem to be decreasing, smoking is a tough habit to break. For those who have quit, those who are trying to quit, and those who continue to smoke, spreading the word about getting a low-dose CT scan before a lung cancer has a chance to grow and spread might be life-saving.

About the Author

Cole Rokke is a third-year medical student at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences. After his clinical experiences in Valley City, Rokke chose to participate in the Targeted Rural Health Education (TRHE) project, a project focusing on teaching student doctors how to partner with rural newspapers to share health information. The information provided is not for diagnosis or treatment and should not be used in place of previous medical advice provided by a licensed healthcare professional.