Two years ago, a landmark federal study found that thousands of lives could be saved annually if middle-aged and older smokers got regular lung cancer screening.
This week, a federally appointed panel of medical experts came to the same conclusion.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force announced it is planning to recommend that people ages 55 to 79 who are pack-a-day smokers - or who used to smoke within the past 15 years - get an annual CT scan to look for early signs of lung cancer.
The task force noted that lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the U.S., most commonly occurring among those age 55 and older. Of the 220,000 people diagnosed with lung cancer annually, 160,000 will die - more deaths than colon, breast and prostate cancers combined.
While lung cancer has a poor prognosis, a CT scan can catch it early - when a small spot can be surgically removed - which can save about 20,000 lives each year, according to the task force.
"This is the first time we've had science that tells us that we can actually avoid some lung cancer deaths through screening," task force vice chairman Michael LeFevre, M.D., told National Public Radio. "So this is really a big change."
The task force gave its lung screening recommendation a grade of B (similar to a mammogram), which means Medicare and private insurers must cover the entire cost, beginning a year after the guideline is adopted, NPR reported. A lung scan costs an estimated $300 to $500, according to the American Lung Association.
It's not known whether annual screening would help younger smokers or those who smoke less than a pack a day, so scans aren't recommended for them. They also aren't recommended for people who quit more than 15 years ago, or those too weak to undergo cancer treatment.
The task force's announcement is a big deal, as ABC News put it, because in recent years the group has urged less frequent screening for breast and cervical cancers, and no screening for prostate cancer, saying PSA blood tests do men more harm than good.
The task force will consider comments on the proposed guidelines until Aug. 26, then will issue a final recommendation in three to six months after that, according to LeFevre.
Photo: boroda via flickr
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