WASHINGTON – A major study shows giving heavy smokers special CT scans can detect lung cancer early enough to modestly lower their risk of death – the first clear evidence that a screening test may help fight the nation’s top cancer killer.
Now the hurdle is deciding who should get these spiral CT scans and how often, because the tests carry their own risks, including repeated radiation exposure and false alarms.
“This finding has important implications for public health, with the potential to save many lives among those at greatest risk for lung cancer,” said National Cancer Institute Director Dr. Harold Varmus, who released the study results Thursday. But, “we don’t know the ideal way yet to do this screening.”
Specialists with the American Cancer Society – which hadn’t recommended the screening because of lack of evidence – planned to evaluate the findings when the full data is published in a few months.
But with about 200,000 new lung cancers diagnosed in the U.S. each year and 159,000 deaths, even a modest reduction could mean big benefits.
Smokers and former smokers have long sought scans, though insurance seldom covers the $300 to $400 test in people without symptoms.
“Clearly it saves lives,” said Dr. Stephen Swensen of the Mayo Clinic, among the 33 sites that conducted the massive study. But, because it carries the burden of unnecessary tests and treatment, “society has to figure out if we can afford this.”