Health Advice



Early detection may help Kentucky tamp down its lung cancer crisis

Charlotte Huff, KFF Health News on

Published in Health & Fitness

Anthony Stumbo’s heart sank after the doctor shared his mother’s chest X-ray.

“I remember that drive home, bringing her back home, and we basically cried,” said the internal medicine physician, who had started practicing in eastern Kentucky near his childhood home shortly before his mother began feeling ill. “Nobody wants to get told they’ve got inoperable lung cancer. I cried because I knew what this meant for her.”

Now Stumbo, whose mother died the following year, in 1997, is among a group of Kentucky clinicians and researchers determined to rewrite the script for other families by promoting training and boosting awareness about early detection in the state with the highest lung cancer death rate. For the past decade, Kentucky researchers have promoted lung cancer screening, first recommended by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force in 2013. These days the Bluegrass State screens more residents who are at high risk of developing lung cancer than any state except Massachusetts — 10.6% of eligible residents in 2022, more than double the national rate of 4.5% — according to the most recent American Lung Association analysis.

The effort has been driven by a research initiative called the Kentucky LEADS (Lung Cancer Education, Awareness, Detection, and Survivorship) Collaborative, which in 2014 launched to improve screening and prevention, to identify more tumors earlier, when survival odds are far better. The group has worked with clinicians and hospital administrators statewide to boost screening rates both in urban areas and regions far removed from academic medical centers, such as rural Appalachia. But, a decade into the program, the researchers face an ongoing challenge as they encourage more people to get tested, namely the fear and stigma that swirl around smoking and lung cancer.

Lung cancer kills more Americans than any other malignancy, and the death rates are worst in a swath of states including Kentucky and its neighbors Tennessee and West Virginia, and stretching south to Mississippi and Louisiana, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s a bit early to see the impact on lung cancer deaths because people may still live for years with a malignancy, LEADS researchers said. Plus, treatment improvements and other factors may also help reduce death rates along with increased screening. Still, data already shows that more cancers in Kentucky are being detected before they become advanced, and thus more difficult to treat, they said. Of total lung cancer cases statewide, the percentage of advanced cases — defined as cancers that had spread to the lymph nodes or beyond — hovered near 81% between 2000 and 2014, according to Kentucky Cancer Registry data. By 2020, that number had declined to 72%, according to the most recent data available.


“We are changing the story of families. And there is hope where there has not been hope before,” said Jennifer Knight, a LEADS principal investigator.

Older adults in their 60s and 70s can hold a particularly bleak view of their mortality odds, given what their loved ones experienced before screening became available, said Ashley Shemwell, a nurse navigator for the lung cancer screening program at Owensboro Health, a nonprofit health system that serves Kentucky and Indiana.

“A lot of them will say, ‘It doesn’t matter if I get lung cancer or not because it’s going to kill me. So I don’t want to know,’” said Shemwell. “With that generation, they saw a lot of lung cancers and a lot of deaths. And it was terrible deaths because they were stage 4 lung cancers.” But she reminds them that lung cancer is much more treatable if caught before it spreads.

The collaborative works with several partners, including the University of Kentucky, the University of Louisville, and GO2 for Lung Cancer, and has received grant funding from the Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation. Leaders have provided training and other support to 10 hospital-based screening programs, including a stipend to pay for resources such as educational materials or a nurse navigator, Knight said. In 2022, state lawmakers established a statewide lung cancer screening program based in part on the group’s work.


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©2024 KFF Health News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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