A Q&A on symptoms, early detection, and treatments with Jeffrey Mueller, MD

Whether you’re a smoker or not, if you’re living in Allegheny County, you’re already at a higher risk of developing cancer than someone living almost anywhere else in the country.

To help us better understand the disease and what to do about it, we spoke with Jeffrey Mueller, MD, the Vice-Chair & Division Director of AHN Cardiothoracic Imaging.

Thank you for talking with us, Dr. Mueller.

Thank you. Lung cancer is a very important topic.

How long have you been specializing in lung health, and where do you practice primarily?

I’ve been practicing chest radiology and teaching residents for over 13 years. My office is at Allegheny General Hospital, but I interpret imaging exams performed at most sites across the network.

What are some of the biggest risk factors for getting lung cancer?

Smoking cigarettes is number one. Others are relatives who’ve had lung cancer, second-hand smoke, and exposure to radon gas, asbestos, or industrial chemicals.

For concerned loved ones, are there places to get resources or information on screenings and treatment options to share with people who may not seek it out on their own?

If someone is ready to talk about setting up a screening, we can help them if they call (844) AHN-LUNG.

If you quit smoking, does it automatically lower your risk for lung cancer?

Yes. Your risk of dying from lung cancer, COPD, or cardiovascular disease decreases as more tobacco-free time passes. Unfortunately, your risk for lung cancer never completely goes away. That’s why lung cancer screening is so important for current and former smokers.

How important is it to catch lung cancer early on, and what’s the best way to know if you need to get screened?

Your chances of surviving lung cancer are much greater if you catch it before you have symptoms. You may not have symptoms of lung cancer, but a screening can tell you if there is cancer in your chest before it’s too late. Once you have symptoms like shortness of breath, chest pain, or a cough, lung cancer is no longer curable.

What’s the biggest hurdle to getting someone to take action about their lung health?

Sometimes it’s psychological or emotional factors. Fear that getting a scan will find something. Guilt they feel for smoking. But those are important to address because they can end up keeping someone from getting help before it’s too late.

What’s the best way to start a conversation about lung health with a patient who’s hesitant to make a change in their life?

Lifestyle change is very difficult. If it were easy, no one would still be smoking, vaping, be overweight, or continuing other habits that they know aren’t good for them. To start a conversation, you first need to identify what will motivate that person to change.

Talk about how they’ll benefit. Tell their story and how you can help them re-write the next chapter. Show them the best version of themselves, someone who’s more active, can play with their children, grandkids, or just go for a walk without having to stop.

After that, try a “what if” statement. What if we schedule you for a lung screening? That lets any fear come out in the open. Addressing that fear is how it can be overcome, and hopefully help someone consider being seen and make a change.

For at-risk patients, is the journey to better lung health usually the same or does it vary based on the individual?

It varies, but seeing your doctor on a regular basis is crucial. That constant contact allows us to create a personalized treatment plan as soon as we identify risk factors or make a diagnosis. The worst words any person can hear from a health care provider is, “I wish you’d have come in six months ago or a year ago.”

What are the safest and most effective screening options for patients with a high risk of lung cancer?

A low dose chest CT or CAT scan is the only way to screen for lung cancer. People who qualify as high-risk should get one every year.

Thank you for your time and your expertise, Dr. Mueller.

Of course. It was my pleasure.

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