While New Mexico has low lung cancer rates, the state lags in screening and treatment

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times

AZTEC — New Mexico has one of the lowest rates of lung cancer in the nation, second only to the state of Utah, but the state still has work to do to increase screening and provide more treatment.

This is according to the third annual State of Lung Cancer report produced by the American Lung Association. The report was released on Nov. 17 and can be viewed at lung.org/solc. The report was released amid Lung Cancer Awareness Month.

While New Mexico has a low lung cancer rate, the state trails behind most others in screening and treatment.

"Through this report we really want to create awareness about lung cancer," said JoAnna Strother, senior director of advocacy at the American Lung Association. "It is the number one cancer killer among men and women."

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Tobacco use is the leading cause of lung cancer, which can be caused by both smoking and second-hand smoke. Other causes include radon and air pollution.

"Anybody can actually get lung cancer regardless of their history," Strother said.

She encouraged people who have chronic coughs or back pain that doesn't go away to talk with their doctor about lung cancer.  

Screening increases chance of early diagnosis

Lung cancer is one of the most deadly forms of cancer, Strother said, and in New Mexico people who are considered at higher risk are less likely to receive screening than in other states.

"Lung cancer screening really is the key to finding lung cancer in an early stage," Strother said.

One reason that lung cancer is so deadly is because it often caught at late stages. According to the American Lung Association, 47% of the lung cancer cases are caught at a late stage when the survival rate is only 6%. In later stages, the cancer has spread to other organs in the body and treatment options are less likely to cure it.

Screening is an important tool for early diagnosis of lung cancer, which increases the chances of survival. However, less than 2% of high-risk New Mexicans are screened for lung cancer and New Mexico ranked 47th out of 49 states evaluated for lung cancer screening. Risk is determined by age and history of smoking. 

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In New Mexico, only 19% of cases are caught at an early stage. This is lower than the national rate of nearly 23%. New Mexico ranks 47th among the 49 states that had data available related to the early diagnosis of lung cancer.

When diagnosed early on, Strother said there are more options for treating lung cancer.

New Mexicans diagnosed with lung cancer have a lower five-year survival rate. The state ranks 32nd in terms of five-year survival, although the survival rate in the state has improved by nearly 20% over the past five years. According to the report, the five-year survival rate is 20.5% for New Mexicans diagnosed with lung cancer. Nationwide, that rate is 22.6%.

Strother said some factors that could be contributing to the low screening rates include that it is a relatively new tool and has narrow eligibility requirements. People who are eligible are between ages 55 and 80 and have a history of smoking on average one pack of cigarettes a day for 30 years and are either current smokers or have quit smoking within the last 15 years.

Strother said the American Lung Association is hoping to see the screening eligibility broadened so that more people can be screened and the cancer can be caught earlier.

New Mexicans diagnosed with lung cancer are less likely to receive treatment

When cases are diagnosed, the patient does not always receive treatment. New Mexicans are less likely to receive treatment. There were 48 states with data about treatment rates. Of those states, New Mexico ranked 47th. Nearly 24% of New Mexicans diagnosed with lung cancer do not receive treatment.

According to the American Lung Association, this can happen for multiple reasons such poor health, refusal of treatment or having the tumor spread too far before the cancer is diagnosed.

New Mexico has the lowest rate of surgical treatment in the nation. Surgical treatment is one method of treating lung cancer in early stages, however patients who are not healthy enough to undergo the procedure or patients in advanced stages are not able to get this treatment. The American Lung Association says the surgical treatment is more likely to cure the cancer than other treatments. Nationally, 20.6% of lung cancer patients received surgical treatment. In New Mexico, 13% of patients did. Other treatment options include chemotherapy, radiation, targeted therapy and immunotherapy.

Racial disparity included in the report

In New Mexico, the rate of lung cancer is highest among Black Americans, however other racial minorities have a lower rate of lung cancer than white Americans.

The rate of new lung cancer cases is 54.3 per every 100,000 people among Black Americans living in New Mexico, which is higher than the white American rate of 46.2 per every 100,000 people.

The report also found that Latinos are the least likely racial group in New Mexico to be diagnosed early. Strother said this could be due to lack of access to healthcare.

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Lack of access to healthcare was one of the main points in the report. She said the American Lung Association could not get data from New Mexico about whether Medicaid in the state covers lung cancer screenings.

The lowest rate of new lung cancer cases was found among Native Americans living in New Mexico, with a rate of 13.6 new cases for every 100,000 people. This is also significantly lower than the nationwide rate of new cases among Native Americans, which is 42 new cases per every 100,000 people.

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Strother said the Native American rates may be lower because of reporting issues or lack of access to care.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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