There are mammograms to screen for breast cancer, colonoscopies for colon cancer, and PSA tests for cancer of the prostate. But until now, there's been no screening tool for the leading cause of cancer death in the United States.
"In Vermont there are 500 new cases of lung cancer each year and there are about 390 deaths from lung cancer each year," said Dr. Gerald Davis, a pulmonary specialist at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington.
Those who smoke or used to smoke are at highest risk of lung cancer, but by the time their cancer typically produces symptoms and can be seen on X-ray, it's usually at an advanced stage and ultimately, lethal.
But a long-term study published in 2011 showed that annual low-dose CAT scans for those at highest risk could detect very early lung cancers while they're still treatable, early cancers not visible on an X-ray.
"In the group that got the low-dose CAT scans there was a 20-percent reduction in death from lung cancer over the screening period, which was for three years, and then followed up for another four years," Davis said.
So in the last days of 2013, after two years of analysis, the United States Preventive Services Task Force issued the first ever guidelines for those high-risk people: those aged 55 to 80 who are current or former smokers, who've smoked at least 30 pack-years-- meaning a pack a day for 30 years, or two packs for 15. The group now suggests a low-dose CAT scan once a year.
"Previously there's been really no way showed any possible effect to screen people for lung cancer in a way that detects the cancer early on so that it makes a difference in terms of their outcome," Davis said.
Davis says experts estimate 15,000-20,000 Vermonters fit that high-risk, age 55 to 80, heavy-smoker criteria. He believes the new screening recommendations-- if followed-- could save 20-50 of them each year.
It's important to note that lung cancer does occur in some people who have never smoked and there is still no screening to detect those cancers early on.
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