Dr Akshu Balwan and team open the UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center Lung Cancer Screening Clinic
By Michele W. Sequeira

Lung Cancer Screening Clinic Opens

UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center launches new clinic to offer screening, minimally invasive testing and follow-up

Akshu Balwan, MD, breathes easier these days because The University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center launched a new comprehensive lung cancer screening clinic as part of the institution’s lung cancer screening program.

The program launched last month, just in time for Lung Cancer Awareness month in November, and can help more people get the lung cancer screening they need.

“Lung cancer is one of the deadliest cancers,” Balwan, a UNM pulmonologist, says. “It is the leading cause of cancer-related mortality in the US and worldwide.”

Lung cancer is one of the deadliest cancers. It is the leading cause of cancer-related mortality in the US and worldwide.
Akshu Balwan, MD

According to the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) program, almost 240,000 Americans are expected to receive a lung cancer diagnosis in 2023. And lung cancer is expected to cause 127,000 deaths, more than the next two deadliest cancers combined.

In New Mexico, 960 people will be diagnosed with the disease and 560 will succumb to it, according to American Cancer Society estimates.

Yet only 2% of eligible New Mexicans get screened for lung cancer.

The UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center’s lung cancer screening team wants to change this statistic. People in New Mexico face many barriers to lung cancer screening, Balwan says. The new clinic at UNM Cancer Center, although in its pilot stage, is making screening more accessible.

“Lung cancer screening is an evidence-based screening test to detect cancer — hopefully at early stages,” Balwan explains. “Numerous clinical trials have shown it to be effective.”

When lung cancer is caught in its early stages, patients have more treatment options and are far less likely to lose their battle to the disease.

Up to 90% of people diagnosed with stage 1 lung cancer can survive for five years or more with the right treatment, Balwan says. But when the cancer spreads beyond the lungs, the 5-year survival rate plunges to less than 10%.

Despite being approved 10 years ago, lung cancer screening is only sporadically offered in New Mexico. The new dedicated lung cancer screening program at UNM will systematically offer screening to eligible people and evaluate those who receive abnormal screening test results.

“Smoking is the number one identified cause of lung cancer,” Balwan says. “Current or former smokers should discuss lung cancer screening with their PCP [primary care provider].”

Smoking is the number one identified cause of lung cancer. Current or former smokers should discuss lung cancer screening with their PCP [primary care provider].
Akshu Balwan, MD

The screening requires a yearly computed tomography (CT) scan. This scan uses lower doses of X-ray radiation to minimize long-term effects from exposure. Those who have higher risk for lung cancer benefit from these annual scans.

The United States Preventive Services Task Force evaluated the numerous clinical studies, and its website describes its recommendation for who would benefit most from screening.

The lung cancer screening program is developing the capacity and tools to screen large numbers of people for lung cancer. In the program’s pilot phase, the team is refining their clinical procedures and bringing new equipment online.

Balwan joined UNM in 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic began to upend clinical procedures throughout New Mexico and the world. That year, Balwan joined forces with Reed Selwyn, PhD, a UNM Regents’ Professor and the Executive Vice Chair of Radiology, to develop the program.

Balwan and Selwyn were soon joined by several other faculty and staff members from other UNM organizations.

From UNM Hospital Radiology, they were joined by Steven Eberhardt, Professor and Clinical Vice Chair; Jennifer Febbo, MD, Assistant Professor; Meaghan Carey Eiland, DNP, RN, Executive Director; and Miranda J. Mares, MS, RT(R)(QM), Manager of Quality and Safety.

From the UNM Cancer Center’s Lung Cancer team, they were joined by Atul Kumar, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Hematology/Oncology and team leader; Jennifer Nishimura, MD, Assistant Professor of Thoracic Surgery; and other members.

Akshu Balwan, MD
We have the experience and the tools here.
Akshu Balwan, MD

“We have the experience and the tools here,” Balwan says. “Dr [Jennifer] Nishimura, our thoracic surgeon, is experienced in robotic surgery. I, myself, do robotic bronchoscopies and other minimally invasive advanced diagnostic procedures.”

Surgery removes cancerous tissues from the lungs. Bronchoscopies evaluate nodes and spots on the lung to test them for cancer. Robotic tools enable doctors to conduct these procedures less invasively, which makes recovery times faster.

Currently in its pilot phase, the clinic is open only to UNM patients, but Balwan expects to open it to all eligible New Mexicans in the near future.



United States Preventive Services Task Force final recommendation statement on lung cancer screening: https://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/recommendation/lung-cancer-screening

University of Michigan decision aid: https://shouldiscreen.com/English/home

UNM Comprehensive Cancer Center

The University of New Mexico Comprehensive Cancer Center is the Official Cancer Center of New Mexico and the only National Cancer Institute-designated Cancer Center in a 500-mile radius.

Its more than 120 board-certified oncology specialty physicians include cancer surgeons in every specialty (abdominal, thoracic, bone and soft tissue, neurosurgery, genitourinary, gynecology, and head and neck cancers), adult and pediatric hematologists/medical oncologists, gynecologic oncologists, and radiation oncologists. They, along with more than 600 other cancer healthcare professionals (nurses, pharmacists, nutritionists, navigators, psychologists and social workers), provide treatment to 65% of New Mexico's cancer patients from all across the state and partner with community health systems statewide to provide cancer care closer to home. They treated approximately 14,000 patients in about 100,000 ambulatory clinic visits in addition to in-patient hospitalizations at UNM Hospital.

A total of nearly 400 patients participated in cancer clinical trials testing new cancer treatments that include tests of novel cancer prevention strategies and cancer genome sequencing.

The more than 100 cancer research scientists affiliated with the UNMCCC were awarded $35.7 million in federal and private grants and contracts for cancer research projects. Since 2015, they have published nearly 1000 manuscripts, and promoting economic development, they filed 136 new patents and launched 10 new biotechnology start-up companies.

Finally, the physicians, scientists and staff have provided education and training experiences to more than 500 high school, undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral fellowship students in cancer research and cancer health care delivery.

Categories: Comprehensive Cancer Center