The Ottawa Hospital has started a new screening program targeting people at high risk of developing lung cancer in an effort to catch and treat the disease sooner.

A pilot program that launched June 1 is urging people between the ages of 55 and 74 who have smoked for 20 years or more — not necessarily consecutively — to get screened in hopes of treating lung cancer before it's too late.

Debi Lascelle credits early screening for her cancer-free status today. After smoking cigarettes for 27 years, she took part in a study about lung screening in 2011.

"I had it in the back in my mind that I could perhaps have lung cancer. I had been a very heavy smoker, although I had quit at that time. I had been around smoking all my life, and I thought it would be an interesting thing to do," she said on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

Fortunately, Lascelle's lung cancer was small and detected. Now doctors at the Ottawa Hospital want others to follow Lascelle's example.

"We really think that getting the disease earlier will make an impact on survival," said Dr. Donna Maziak, thoracic surgeon at the Ottawa hospital.

"If it's caught early, the survival for Stage 1 [lung cancer] based on previous data is approximately 69 to 75 per cent."

Most deadly cancer

Lung cancer is the second-most diagnosed cancer in Ontario, and it accounts for the most cancer deaths — more than colorectal, breast and prostate cancer combined, according to Maziak.

"The idea of the lung screening is that we'll catch it earlier. And the key to a successful screening program for lung is smoking cessation. It goes hand in hand," she said. 

"You're not getting a CT scan every year just to give you a licence to smoke one more year because you didn't get lung cancer. It's really to help the whole patient."

teen smoking

The Ottawa Hospital's screening program is aimed at longtime smokers who may be at high risk of developing lung cancer. (CBC)

The Ottawa Hospital also wants to reduce the stigma around the disease, something Lascelle experienced often when she first told people she had lung cancer.

"I would suggest there's still quite a bit of stigma. I don't know too many smokers who are happy they're smokers. But it is a true addiction. Certainly quitting was something that was extremely difficult to do," she said.

Lascelle is encouraging anyone who may be at risk to take advantage of this screening program.

"Please do it. Don't hesitate. It's such a difference when it's caught early," she said. 

"They can do something and you can be a survivor. It makes the world of difference. Do this for yourself and your family."