Panel recommends annual lung cancer screening for some current, former smokers

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Nine out of 10 people with lung cancer die from it. That's usually because the disease is diagnosed in late stages.  On Monday, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended that certain smokers and former smokers get CT scans every year to check for lung cancer.
 
The recommendation applies to people 55 to 80 years old who've smoked a pack a day for 30 years or two packs for 15 years and are current smokers or have quit in the past 15 years.  
 
The government panel says they should get low-dose CT scans every year.  The goal is to find lung cancer in earlier, more treatable stages. 
 
A lung surgeon at the University of Kansas Hospital says many lives will be saved, but there are downsides to screening.  They include radiation exposure and lots of false positive results.  
 
"Upwards of 40 percent of patients are going to have a spot that we find on a CT scan.  Of those, only two to three percent actually turn out to be cancer," says Dr. Nirmal Veeramachaneni.
 
Those spots require expensive follow-up testing that causes anxiety for patients.  Dr. Veeramachaneni recommends patients go to a center with experience doing and reading the lung scans, and in doing follow-up.   
 
"This is not something that should be engaged on any CT scanner with any radiologist." he says.
 
When final, the new guidelines will likely result in government and private insurers covering the scans.  But even with that, will those at risk get screened?
 
"I don't think so, really.  They overtest you nowadays, I think," says Warren Smith, a former heavy smoker for more than 30 years.  
 
He says he'd get CT screening only if his doctor strongly recommends it.   
   
The government panel cautions that screening is not the most effective way to prevent lung cancer deaths.  Quitting smoking is.      
 
The task force is the same one that's had controversial guidelines for breast and prostate cancer screening.  The lung cancer guidelines are published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.  Before a final recommendation is made, the public has until Aug. 26 to comment here.    

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