The U.S. Preventive Service Task Force, an independent group of doctors appointed by the government, has recommended new screening guidelines for lung cancer. New findings suggest that current and former heavy smokers would benefit from receiving annual CT scans.
"The evidence shows we can prevent a substantial number of lung cancer deaths by screening", says Dr. Michael LeFevre, a task force leader and family physician. According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer accounts for almost 160,000 deaths in the United States. Dr. LeFevre believes about 20,000 of these lives can be saved by the new screening guidelines.
According to Dr. Daniel Nader, National Clinical Director of Pulmonary/Critical Care at CTCA in Tulsa, this decision is long overdue.
“It is about time we finally have a screening test for the most deadly cancer. It has taken nearly three years for this to be approved by a government agency,” says Dr. Nader. “Other professional societies and organizations have stepped forward and endorsed these recommendations based on careful review of scientific data, without regard to financial and political issues. It's about time.”
According to the Task Force, 10 million Americans would fit the above criteria for lung cancer screening. Under the new guidelines, people who may benefit from annual CT scans include:
- People between the ages of 55-79 who have smoked the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes a day for 30 years.
- People who quit smoking heavily less than 15 years ago.
Screening is not advised for everyone. For instance, people who aren’t healthy enough to undergo cancer treatment may be advised to skip the screening. The potentially negative impact of radiation exposure from CT scans on light smokers or the younger population hasn’t been studied yet.
History of the lung cancer screening debate
Just as there is debate over proper screening for breast, cervical and prostate cancers, the health community has questioned whether the benefits outweigh the risks involved in lung cancer screening.
In the past, lung cancer screening was not recommended for the prevention of lung cancer, because biopsies and scans often posed more harm than good. Abnormal test results would often lead to more testing, or in some cases, unnecessary surgery to remove a portion of the lung for further testing.
This is not the first time lung cancer screening is getting a closer look. The American Cancer Society previously recommended lung cancer screening with chest X-rays, but changed their view in 1980 after studies showed the screenings weren’t increasing survival rates. In 2004, the Task Force revisited the lung cancer screening guidelines and decided there was still too little evidence to recommend screening.