New Lung Cancer Screening Saves Lives

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While breast and prostate cancer are the two most common cancers in the U.S., lung cancer wins the grand prize as the number one cancer killer in this country, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).

Lung cancer is extremely difficult to detect. That’s because it shows very few signs that it has invaded the body until the cancer is quite advanced. The good news is that a new screening method for lung cancer now makes early detection possible, offering the best opportunity for treatment and recovery.

Standard Screenings

Traditionally, if a patient showed signs of lung cancer, doctors would order one of the following tests.

Chest X-ray: This is often the first test ordered to find masses or spots on the lungs. These are commonly performed at imaging centers, hospitals and even in some doctors’ offices Sputum cytology: For this test, a sample of the mucus you cough up from your lungs (sputum) is looked at under a microscope to see if it contains cancer cells.

Unfortunately, these tests usually aren’t ordered until the person shows up at the doctor’s office with symptoms. At that point, the cancer may be too advanced for treatment to be effective. Recent medical studies found that while these tests can detect lung cancer, they don’t seem to reduce the risk of death. As a result, the ACS and most doctors do not recommend using them to screen the general population — or even people at higher risk, such as cigarette smokers — for lung cancer.

New, Life-saving Screening

The newest weapon in the fight against lung cancer is the low-dose spiral CT scan. In this procedure, a CT scanner rotates a thin X-ray beam around the chest in a spiral pattern, producing thin cross-sectional views of the lungs. This offers several advantages over standard CTs and chest X-rays:

  • It uses less radiation.
  • It does not require the injection of contrast agents into the patient’s blood to enhance the images.
  • It is more sensitive at detecting lung cancer.
  • The tumors found are generally smaller, increasing the chance that they can be removed surgically.

The National Lung Screening Trial showed that low-dose CT screening used to screen high risk individuals led to a 20 percent rate reduction in the number of lung cancer deaths, compared to screening with a standard chest X-ray.

The good news is that a new screening method for lung cancer now makes early detection possible

There are some downsides. Low-dose spiral CT is so sensitive that it detects many abnormalities that turn out not to be cancer, but still need further testing to be sure. This may lead to anxiety and possibly unnecessary tests, such as more CT scans, or even more invasive procedures such as biopsies or surgery in some people. And while the radiation exposure is less than with chest X-rays, patients are still exposed to a small amount.

Who Should Be Screened?New Lung Cancer Screening Saves Lives - In Content

The ACS and other national medical groups encourage people at high risk for lung cancer to be screened, even if they do not have symptoms. This includes people between the ages of 55-77 who currently smoke, or quit within the last 15 years, and have smoked at least one pack per day for 30 years.

What about Genetic Testing?

Ongoing research could eventually lead to genetic screening for lung cancer. Scientists have found that certain changes, or mutations, in the DNA of normal cells lead to the development of cancer. This knowledge may one day allow scientists to reliably look at tissue or mucus samples for genetic changes linked to lung cancer. But for now, genetic screening for lung cancer remains strictly experimental.

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