The University of Alabama at Birmingham was the first area hospital to offer low-dose radiation computed tomography scans (CT scans) for early detection of lung cancer, in July of 2013. In December, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended the use of such scans for heavy smokers.
The UAB screening program was established following a landmark study that indicated CT scans could help reduce lung cancer deaths. Findings from a large national study conducted by the National Cancer Institute published in 2011 in the New England Journal of Medicine indicated that low-dose radiation CT scans were an effective tool for early detection of lung cancer. The study found a 20 percent reduction in deaths from lung cancer among current or former heavy smokers who were screened with CT versus those screened by chest X-ray.
The recommendation from the USPSTF, an independent panel of nonfederal experts in prevention- and evidence-based medicine, calls for annual screening for lung cancer with low-dose CT scans in adults ages 55 to 80 years who have a 30 pack-year smoking history and currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years.
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.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, causing more deaths than breast, colon and prostate cancer combined. Cigarette smoking is the major cause of lung cancer.
The best treatment for lung cancer is surgical removal of cancerous lesions from the lung, and that is effective only if the cancer is found early.
“We have been searching for a reliable screening method for early detection of lung cancer for years,” said Mark Dransfield, M.D., associate professor in the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine at UAB. “For the appropriate group of patients, CT scans may be a valuable tool for identifying lung cancer in its early stages, when treatments are most effective.”
The UAB program, which requires a referral from a primary care physician, has an upfront cost of $250; Medicare and most private insurance plans do not yet pay for CT scans for lung cancer screening.
“We want to ensure that patients speak with their primary care physician and understand the possible benefits and limitations of CT screening,” Dransfield said. “CT screening appears to be appropriate for some patients, but each individual case is different.”
Patients who get a CT scan will receive a written report from the radiologist who reads the scan. A report will also be sent to their primary care physician. The report will describe any abnormalities found in the scan and present specific recommendations for follow-up.
For more information on the UAB low-dose CT scan lung cancer screening program, go to www.uab.edu/medicine/radiology/patient-care/lung-cancer-ct-screening.