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Dr. David Wilson, Pittsburgh Cancer Institute
Seeks Early Detection of Lung Cancer
By Laurie Bailey

Which is the deadliest form of cancer? It may come as a surprise to learn that it is not prostate, breast, colon or skin cancer, some of the most common cancers. Rather, it is lung cancer. Among both men and women in the United States, lung cancer is the second most common cancer and the number one cause of death from cancer. It is a silent, insidious disease that develops slowly and typically inflicts an enormous amount of damage well before its presence becomes known. As a result, lung cancer is usually in the advanced stages when it is diagnosed. Those who are diagnosed with it are usually older adults who have unknowingly lived with the disease, perhaps for years, before becoming symptomatic. This presents exceptional challenges to the physicians who diagnose and treat lung cancer.

According to David O. Wilson, M.D., the crux of the challenge is that there is still no screening test for the early detection of lung cancer. Wilson is the director of the Georgia Cooper Memorial Lung Cancer Research Registry and the Co-Director of the Lung Cancer Center at the Hillman Cancer Center at University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, where he conducts research and treats patients along with a multidisciplinary team of specialty physicians. "Earlier diagnosis is the challenge," Wilson explains. "But there is currently no screening for early detection and treatment of lung cancer. There's nothing comparable to an annual mammogram, Pap smear or prostate test. Although the treatment for lung cancer is advancing and both surgeries and chemotherapy can be very effective, the survival statistics for lung cancer are not significantly better than they were 25 years ago. The focus of my research is to find the screening test."

When cancer is diagnosed in the early stages, it is more responsive to treatment, and when treatment begins in a timely manner, the prognosis improves. Many early cancers are curable with surgery, chemotherapy or radiation therapy, while others become a chronic disease that many patients learn to manage and live with for years. Wilson says that that is the model that he and his colleagues would like to emulate in caring for patients with lung cancer. He is engaged in several research studies, including one known as PLuSS: the Pittsburgh Lung Cancer Screening Study. This study is investigating the utilization of CT (computed tomography) scanning as the screening test that could detect lung cancer in the early stages.

The vast majority of cases of lung cancer are a consequence of smoking tobacco. "Without smoking, lung cancer would be a mere footnote," says Wilson. "85% of lung cancers in women and 95% in men are due to smoking."

The Hillman Cancer Center has a multidisciplinary lung cancer program that is unique in this region. Under one roof, the lung cancer program brings together pulmonologists, thoracic surgeons, medical oncologists and radiation oncologists, all specializing in lung cancer. Each one's expertise complements that of the others in a team effort that assures that patients are receiving the most advanced specialty care available.

Dr Wilson is a Pittsburgh native who has been associated with the University of Pittsburgh throughout his distinguished career. He is a graduate of the Pitt Medical School and completed his internship at what is now known as UPMC in 1980. He serves as an assistant professor on the faculty of the Medical School.

"Most people who are diagnosed with lung cancer will die from it. In the treatment of lung cancer, we need timely and early diagnosis, and we need early and innovative treatment. Lung cancer is the #1 cancer killer in America, killing more people annually than the next 3 types of cancer combined. Among those who are at high risk for developing lung cancer, an effective screening test could prevent thousands of deaths."

Symptoms of LUNG CANCER
As the cancer grows, common symptoms may include:

  • a cough that gets worse or does not go awa
  • breathing trouble, such as shortness of breath
  • constant chest pain
  • coughing up blood
  • a hoarse voice
  • frequent lung infections, such as pneumonia
  • feeling very tired all the time
  • weight loss with no known cause

Most often these symptoms are not due to cancer. Other health problems can cause some of these symptoms. Anyone with such symptoms should see a doctor to be diagnosed and treated as early as possible.

Source: National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute

Fast Facts About Lung Cancer

  • It is one of the most common cancers. In men, it is second to prostate cancer; in women, it is second to breast cancer.
  • It is the #1 cause of death from cancer
  • It affects men more frequently than women, but the gap is closing
  • Cigarette smoking causes most lung cancers
  • Other causes include asbestos exposure, secondhand smoke and radon
  • There is no screening test for the early detection of lung cancer, and it is asymptomatic until it has reached an advanced stage.

To contact Dr. Wilson's office, call (412) 687-3355

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