Health & Medicine

UK, U of L to use $7 million grant to fight Kentucky's high rate of lung cancer

FRANKFORT — Increasing lung cancer screening, expanding access to care and improving survival rates for lung cancer patients is the aim of a new $7 million, three-year effort in Kentucky.

The program, financed by Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation, was announced Wednesday at the Capitol Rotunda. It is a joint effort of the University of Kentucky, University of Louisville and the Lung Cancer Alliance, a national nonprofit advocacy group.

Gov. Steve Beshear said Kentucky has the highest rate of lung cancer in the United States. "Lung cancer is the most common cancer worldwide and kills more Americans than breast, prostate and colon cancer combined," he said. "In Kentucky the impact of this disease is especially distressing."

About half of Kentuckians diagnosed with lung cancer survive a year. Only 16 percent survive five years.

Early this year Beshear announced a goal of reducing the state's smoking rate by 10 percent. He said Wednesday that the new program, officially the Lung Cancer Education Awareness Detection Survivorship Collaborative, would help attain that goal.

Because Kentucky leads the country in lung cancer patients, it also needs to lead in "finding solutions toward preventing and curing and coping with this destructive disease," he said.

The program will help tens of thousands of people, said Laurie Fenton Ambrose, president of the Lung Cancer Alliance, and it will create specific strategies that can be used in other states.

But Kentucky has long had high lung cancer rates, so why has it taken so long to start such an effort?

"The question isn't why it has taken so long in Kentucky. It is why it has taken so long nationally," she said. "That is because this is a disease that has for too long been stigmatized and misunderstood with the idea that 'Well, you chose to smoke, it's your fault. You get what you get.'"

She said lung cancer deserved the same kind of community support and comprehensive care that is provided for people with diabetes or heart disease. A key part of the new initiative will be access to free CT screenings starting at age 55.

Jamie Studts, director of the project, called the effort "the purple project" because it blends the expertise of the red of the U of L Cardinals and the UK Blue of the Wildcats.

But if the hourlong news conference was full of enthusiasm, with speakers being interrupted by applause multiple times from the 50 or so people in attendance, it was short on specific goals.

The program will be deemed successful if, Studts said, it is "reducing the burden of lung cancer in Kentucky."

Exactly what form that will take is evolving, he said. The first year will be devoted to developing programs, the next 18 months to implementing the program, then the last six months to researching what worked well and what can be improved.

"We have the opportunity to change incidence, we have the opportunity to change mortality," Studts said. He also said he was confident the partnership could continue after the three years, and he was hopeful that financial support from Bristol-Myers could continue.