British Columbia

Lung cancer screening program at VGH aims to catch disease early

Despite smoking rates falling across Canada, the death rate from lung cancer is holding steady at 80 per cent. Dr. John Yee of Vancouver General Hospital believes early detection is key, and he hopes a new detection and prevention regimen could make a difference.

Hospital hoping to demonstrate new protocol can save money, lives, by catching disease early

Experts at Vancouver General Hospital will use CT scans and better information to enact a new lung cancer screening program that will hopeful improve detection. (Jim Cole/Associated Press)

A new detection and prevention program at Vancouver General Hospital hopes to lower the startlingly high death rate for lung cancer in B.C. and elsewhere.

Lung cancer is the second most common cancer after non-melanoma skin cancer, and despite falling rates of smokers, the death rate remains steady at about 80 per cent, according to Dr. John Yee, head of thoracic surgery at VGH and director of B.C.'s lung transplant program.

"Simply, it's detected too late. Lung cancer is a silent killer," Yee told BC Almanac host Gloria Macarenko. "By the time you have symptoms, a cough, shortness of breath, weight loss, difficulty breathing, it's a general sign that the cancer has spread to other organs."

"The only way to survive lung cancer in this era is to have early detection and surgery to remove it."

Yee says past detection programs have largely been unsuccessful because the technology, which mostly relies on chest X-Rays, was not advanced enough. They often generate false positives and have been extremely expensive.

He says the new program will use CT scans, and detection experts combined with new information to help family doctors screen patients and assess their risk levels for the disease.

Yee's ultimate goal is to use this one-year demonstration program to prove to the rest of Canada that early detection can save lives and money and be practical over the long-term.

Detection and treatment underfunded

The new program is the first of its kind in Canada, and was made possible thanks to a $1.2 million donation from Jason and Emily Ko.

Dr. John Yee is one of several doctors involved with Vancouver General Hospital's new lung cancer screening program. (Liam Britten/CBC)

Yee says the need for a single large donation to make the program possible speaks to the lack of medical resources for fighting lung cancer. It also speaks to the stigma surrounding the disease, which has had less fundraising success than other diseases.

"There's a bit of a blind spot we have, socially. We look at it somewhat differently than other diseases," he said. "For us to ignore it is at our peril."

Yee says that most lung cancer patients he sees aren't smokers. Many have never smoked a day in their lives, and the vast majority of former smokers, who quit 20 or even 30 years ago, are only now developing the disease.

Risk factors

The demonstration program at VGH will focus first on those long-term smokers, including those who have given up the habit, as well as people with other risk factors.

Being a current or former smoker is the number one risk factor for lung cancer, Yee says, followed by a family member who has developed lung cancer (because of genetics and second-hand smoke), then being female, then finally, poor socio-economic conditions.

To connect with the screening program or apply, contact the BC Cancer Agency at 604.675.8088, and ask for the lung cancer screening program.

To hear the full interview, click the audio labelled: New VGH lung cancer screening program aims for early detection