Health Beat with Dr. Alicia Arnold: Lung cancer screening guidelines

Last week, new recommendations were issued by the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force regarding lung cancer screening for heavy smokers. Dr. Alicia Arnold joined us Monday morning to get us up-to-speed.

Meghan Kulig: What kind of screening is being advised?

Dr. Arnold: The statement recommends annual low dose CT scanning to detect lung cancer in heavy smokers.

Meghan Kulig: Who should be screened?

Dr. Arnold: Adults aged 55 to 80 years old who have a 30 pack year smoking history and currently smoke or have quit within the last 15 years. Advancing age and total exposure to tobacco smoke are the two most common risk factors for lung cancer.

Meghan Kulig: Can you tell us how a pack year is defined?

Dr. Arnold: A pack year is when a person smokes a pack a day for a year. So if a person has smoked a pack a day for 30 years, they have the 30 pack year history. Equivalent amounts also count, for example smoking 2 packs a day for 15 years, also equals a 30 pack year history.

Meghan Kulig: So it is recommended that these patients be screened every year?

Dr. Arnold: The guidelines recommend this screening be continued until it's been 15 years since the person kicked the habit or else the individual has another health problem that limits life expectancy, makes them not healthy enough to have surgery, or not willing to have surgery.

Meghan Kulig: What kind of benefit is expected from these guidelines?

Dr. Arnold: Evidence suggests that implementing this kind of screening program could result in approximately 50 percent of lung cancer cases being detected at an early stage. Earlier detection and treatment offer a better chance for cure. They are expecting approximately 20,000 deaths annually could be prevented by following these screening recommendations. Nearly 90 percent of people with lung cancer die of the disease, so options for screening have the potential to be lifesaving, although of course the best option is still not to smoke.

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