If you have smoked a pack of cigarettes every day for 30 years and you're between 55 and 80 years old, you could benefit from regular CT scans to check for lung cancer, a national panel of health experts says.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force on Monday posted its draft recommendation on lung cancer screenings.
The task force recommends that people who are at high risk for lung cancer get annual low-dose CT scans. Such screenings, the group said, can prevent a substantial number of lung cancer-related deaths.
“We believe that the benefit (of screening) exceeds the harms and that we can save a significant number of lives,” said Dr. Michael LeFevre, the co-vice chairman of the task force.
Harms can include false-positive results that can lead to further testing.
The screenings at Methodist involve people age 40 and older who have been smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for 20 years or the equivalent, or are former smokers, have significant exposure to secondhand smoke or have a family history of lung cancer.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States, the national task force said. The most important risk factor for lung cancer, it said, is smoking, which results in about 85 percent of all lung cancer cases in the United States. The risk for developing lung cancer increases with age, with most lung cancers occurring in people age 55 or older.
The proportion of deaths that can be averted through screening actually is fairly small, LeFevre said. “The number we're quoting right now is 14 percent,” he said. “So it's a modest reduction. But a small proportion of a large number is still a large number.”
If the screening allows for a 14 percent reduction in the annual number of U.S. lung cancer deaths, which LeFevre said is about 160,000, that still is more than 20,000 deaths prevented, he said.
Such screenings usually aren't covered by Medicare or private insurers now. But under the Affordable Care Act, cancer screenings recommended by the task force are to be covered with no copays or coinsurance.
“It's generally going to be covered by all health plans” if the advice gets final task force approval, Susan Pisano of the industry trade group America's Health Insurance Plans told the Associated Press.
After reviewing evidence from a large, randomized, controlled trial, the task force determined that a reasonable balance of benefits and harms can be reached by screening people who are 55 to 80 years old and have a 30 “pack year” or greater history of smoking, who are either current smokers or have quit in the past 15 years. A “pack year” means that someone has smoked an average of one pack of cigarettes per day for a year. You reach 30 pack years of smoking history by smoking a pack a day for 30 years or two packs a day for 15 years.
The screens at Methodist also have turned up a breast cancer, a kidney cancer and an aortic aneurysm, Meyers said.
Patients found to have suspicious nodules of a certain size in their lungs, she said, are encouraged to talk to their primar- care physicians about being evaluated by a pulmonologist, or lung specialist. Those interested in taking part in the ongoing study can call 402-354-5858.
The task force is taking public comment on its draft recommendation until Aug. 26 at www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/tfcomment.htm. It will issue a final recommendation later. LeFevre said that not everyone in the high-risk group will be a good candidate for screening.
“The treatment is lung cancer surgery, where they take part of your lung. “If you can't tolerate surgery,” he said, “you're not a good candidate for screening.”
He also said getting screened for lung cancer isn't an alternative to quitting smoking. “But screening high-risk smokers can prevent a significant number of lung cancer deaths.”