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New Lung Cancer Screening Technique Could Improve Survival

Lung cancer, screening


"When you think that it's the number-one cancer killer in the world, it has a major health impact," says Henschke. "We should be able to increase even more by doing repeat annual screening. [This] opens a new world for early lung cancer intervention. It changes [lung cancer] from being such a fatal, nihilistic disease to one that has high cure rates."

While the technology is available in all large medical centers, the level of expertise in interpreting the images and managing patient care is not, says McGuinness. "A source of concern is the high number of lesions detected in high-risk patients -- those who are older and have been smoking for many years, and typically have numerous abnormalities in their lungs. The vast majority of these lesions are going to be benign, so you can't simply assume it's a cancer and send them to surgery."

While several similar, small trials of this screening tool are now underway, the NIH is considering a national randomized clinical trial -- considered the gold standard for assessing the value and guidelines used in such procedures, says McGuinness.

Other national smoking cessation programs generally get about 6% of smokers to quit, whereas the ELCAP program inspired 20% to give up their habit. "We consider a cessation rate of over 20% as very good," Joann Shellenbach, a spokesman for the American Cancer Society, tells WebMD.

More than 171,000 lung cancers are diagnosed in the U.S. each year and 158,000 people die from the disease -- a greater death toll than breast cancer, prostate cancer, and colorectal cancer combined.

Lung cancer is considered one of the deadliest cancers, largely because it is typically not detected in the early stages, when it is most curable. "There are no symptoms in the early stages," says Shellenbach. "Rarely is it found [in the very early stages]. Usually that's a serendipitous finding when the patient is having surgery for another reason. Occasionally, it might show up on a chest X-ray. And on the rare occasions it does turn up, it can be treated for a cure."

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