A recent report from the American Lung Association shows West Virginians have some of the highest rates of lung disease and circumstances that cause it.
West Virignians are more likely to have a smoking habit than those living in any other state, according to the association’s 2021 State of Lung Cancer report. Almost a quarter of adults in the state smoke cigarettes.
That’s one reason why so many people are being diagnosed with lung cancer, says Molly Pisciottano, who serves as the West Virginia and Pennsylvania director for advocacy at the American Lung Association.
“While you don’t have to be a smoker to get lung cancer, it is the primary cause,” Pisciottano said.
West Virginia is second to only Kentucky in the rate of new diagnoses. The current age-adjusted rate of new lung cancer cases is 79 for every 100,000 West Virginians. The national average is 58.
The new research findings may not be surprising to West Virginians. The state consistently ranks towards the bottom of many health indices.
However, over the five years that Pisciottano’s organization has filed this report, she said there’s been some positive changes. More people are surviving the life-threatening disease five years after their initial diagnoses.
“Even though we’re 40th in the nation for survival rates … we still have seen a 15 percent improvement over the past five years,” Pisciottano said.
Also, 30 percent of those West Virginians who have been diagnosed are getting the essential cancer treatment they need.
“So that was a little bit of good news, too,” Pisciottano said.
To prevent the worst outcomes of lung cancer, doctors urge people to get regular cancer screenings. That goes for West Virginia and the whole country. The report found, nationally, only six percent of at-risk people were screened in the past year.
There’s at least one reason for that, said Dr. Kyle Chapman, a pulmonologist at Ruby Memorial Hospital.
“Lung cancer in its early stages oftentimes doesn’t cause a lot of symptoms,” Chapman said.
That means people might wait until they’re coughing up blood to go to the doctor. At that point, the cancer may have grown, spread through the lungs, or even advanced to other organs.
“So the downside of finding a cancer later, particularly lung cancer, is the treatments are going to be more invasive and harder on the patient and potentially not curative,” Chapman said.
But with regular early screenings, Chapman hopes more West Virginians can receive their diagnosis while the cancer is still small, localized and could be removed through life-saving surgery.
Efforts to expand screening are happening nationwide and locally. In March, a panel of national experts expanded criteria for who should get screened annually. That now includes those 50 and older who’ve spent about 20 years smoking.
In West Virginia, doctors like Chapman are offering more opportunities to screen people, even taking their practices on the road. The WVU Cancer Institute launched a mobile lung cancer screening program in August to serve 42 of the state’s most rural counties. It was the first of its kind in the nation.
“It’s one way that we’re trying to address the lack of access and lack of screening is by having this mobile screening platform,” Chapman said
It was modeled after the institute’s mobile Bonnie’s Bus, which offers mammograms. While breast and prostate cancers are the most common in West Virginia, lung cancer is by far the deadliest, according to a 2019 WVU and state report. The report showed 7,300 state residents died annually with the disease. The next deadliest cancer was colon cancer at 2,265.
To learn more about lung disease and if you should receive a screening, visit lung.org or wvucancer.org.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting with support from Charleston Area Medical Center and Marshall Health.