Health experts recommending earlier screenings for lung cancer

Ask the Expert

GREENVILLE, S.C. (WSPA) – New research shows that women and African Americans could be at a higher risk for lung cancer than others.

In July, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force has reviewed this research and proposed lowering the age requirement for lung cancer screenings.

It proposed annual low-dose computed tomography scans (CT scans) for lung cancer in adults ages 50 to 80 years who have a 20 pack-year smoking history and currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years. It recommends that screening should be discontinued once a person has not smoked for 15 years or develops a health problem that substantially limits life expectancy or the ability or willingness to have curative lung surgery.

A “pack year” is calculated by multiplying the number of packs of cigarettes smoked per day by the number of years the person has smoked. Twenty “pack years” is equivalent to smoking one pack a day for 20 years.

Currently, to qualify for a screening, a patient must have 30 pack years (meaning he/she has smoked one pack per day for 30 years). They must also be between the age of 55 and 80 and must be a current smoker or have quit smoking within the past 15 years.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that even though smoking cigarettes is the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., 13 percent of Americans still smoke.

The American Cancer Society also shows that lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in men and women.

Bon Secours St. Francis Pulmonologist Dr. Chris Sine said never smoking, or quitting, is the first prevention step for lung cancer, and stresses that if you’re a smoker or ex-smoker, early screenings could save your life.

“Lung cancer frequently doesn’t cause a lot of symptoms in the early stage,” he said. “If we don’t have symptoms the patient could look out for or we could look out for, it’s very hard to find lung cancers early. When we see lung cancer can be cut out at an early stage, your chances for cure and survival go way up.”

Dr. Sine said these new recommendations could help doctors catch lung cancer in populations that are more susceptible to lung cancer. “It would be more broadly inclusive, allow for screening patients that we would have said before don’t meet criteria,” he said.

According to the task force, new research shows that women and African Americans are more likely to have lung cancer with less smoking history.

The Southern Community Cohort Study participants found that 17% of African American smokers were eligible for lung cancer screening based on the 2014 USPSTF eligibility criteria compared with 31% of white smokers. In the same study, among persons diagnosed with lung cancer, a significantly lower percentage of African American smokers (32%) was eligible for screening compared with white smokers (56%).

Dr. Sine is hopeful that these new recommendations will be adopted nationwide and help more people qualify for screenings.

“As we get these finalized and get more societies on board, I think within the year it could be a thing that’s active that insurance companies are paying for,” he said.

Until then, he urges people who think they may fit the criteria to ask their doctors if they are at risk for lung cancer.

Another tool Dr. Sine recommended to smokers and ex-smokers is the website

It has a calculator to determine a person’s risk for lung cancer based on a series of questions.

The U.S. Preventative Services says earlier routine screening can give patients diagnosed with lung cancer a better chance for a cure, but warns that harms of screening can include false-positive results leading to unnecessary tests and invasive procedures, overdiagnosis, radiation-induced cancer, incidental findings, and increases in distress or anxiety.

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