CT Scans Detect Early Lung Cancers: Study

Lung cancer is the number one cancer killer -- more deadly than breast, prostate, cervical and colon cancers combined. Of the 173,000 people who are newly diagnosed with lung cancer each year, a staggering 95 percent will eventually die from it.

Early screening tests for other cancers -- such as mammography and colonoscopy -- can find tumors in their early and more treatable stages. For lung cancers, however, no proven screening test exists. But researchers think they may have found one.

For more on the study, watch "Healthy Life" on ABC News Now at 10:05 this morning.

A new study to be published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine says that a powerful scanner, the spiral CT, can detect very small and early stage lung cancers. The researchers suggest that this early detection may help more people get effective treatment and survive this devastating disease longer.

Largest Study of Its Kind Suggests CT Scans Benefit Patients

This is the largest longterm study to show that the CT scan may be beneficial in catching early lung cancer. Led by researchers at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Hospital, the data was collected as part of the International Early Lung Cancer Action Program (I-ELCAP).

Researchers from 38 hospitals in seven countries studied more than 30,000 people over age 40 with a high risk of developing lung tumors. This high risk group included smokers, nonsmokers exposed to secondhand smoke and people who worked with cancer-causing agents such as asbestos, uranium or radon.

None of the volunteers had what doctors consider to be warning symptoms of lung cancer, such as a cough that doesn't go away, shortness of breath, hoarseness, bloody spit or weight loss.

Researchers ran 31,567 volunteers through a CT scanner and evaluated suspicious spots found on the CT scan. If those spots met the criteria for possible lung cancer, patients were offered immediate treatment. If not, patients were followed-up at subsequent times to chart the growth of the abnormality.

Eventually, doctors identified 484 people with lung cancer -- of which 412 were in the smallest and earliest stage of the disease. At this early stage, lung cancer can be very curable, especially with surgery.

Unfortunately, lung cancer is usually caught at later stages, when it may have already spread to other body parts and when it is too late for treatments to make much of a difference.

Early Detection Means Early Treatment

Because doctors found the tumors early, patients were treated quicky, before the disease had progressed to a serious stage.

Researchers estimated that 88 percent of these people would be alive at 10 years because of this early treatment -- a much better prognosis than usual. Doctors also estimated that more than 90 percent of the 302 who had their tumor removed would be alive at 10 years.

All patients who didn't undergo any treatment -- neither surgery, nor chemotherapy, nor radiation -- died within five years of the diagnosis.

Study authors say that CT screening can find more curable cancer and they suggest that the American Cancer Society should revise its current guidelines -- which do not recommend early lung cancer screening -- to incorporate CT screening as an early detection test.

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