After years of having no reliable screening test, it's now known that screening individuals at an elevated risk of developing lung cancer can save lives. In people who are between the ages of 55 and 74, continue to smoke or have quit in the past decade and a half, and who smoke or smoked for at least 30 pack-years, low-dose CT screening can reduce lung cancer deaths by 20%.
What kind of numbers are we talking about? I've done the math to venture a guess before, but a new study takes this a step further. It appears that 12,000 deaths could be prevented yearly in the United States.
Why is this estimate important? Lung cancer screening is still in its infancy. Despite data on reduced mortality, lung cancer screening for those who are eligible is far from routine. Even among people who smoke, it has yet to play in the same ballpark with colonoscopies for early detection of colon cancer and Pap smears to prevent cervical cancer. But estimating the number of deaths that are potentially preventable if CT screening was routinely done in those who fit the criteria and guidelines, could help policy makers better understand CT screening.
If you have smoke or smoked in the past, talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of screening CT scans. Unfortunately, there are currently no screening guidelines for people with other risk factors for lung cancer, but if you've been exposed to radon in your home, have a family history of lung cancer, or have had occupational exposures that raise the risk of lung cancer, talk to your doctor. And it's never too late to practice prevention. Even if you've smoked in the past, a good diet and exercise might make a difference in lowering your risk.
If you smoke, think about quitting. Of the 43 million Americans who currently smoke, 50% of those who continue will die of smoking related diseases.
Photo: National Cancer Institute, Linda Barlett (photographer)
Ma, J., Ward, E., Smith, R. and J. Ahmedin. Annual number of lung cancer deaths potentially avertable by screening in the United States. CANCER. Published Online February 25, 2013. doi: 10.1002/cncr.27813.
Tammemagi, M. et al. Selection criteria for lung-cancer screening. The New England Journal of Medicine. 2013. 368(8):728-36.