New American Cancer Society guidelines are set to expand eligibility for lung cancer screenings to millions of people at high risk for the disease. The updated guidelines recommend annual low-dose CT scans for individuals aged 50 to 80 who have a history of smoking at least 20 “pack years” and are either current smokers or quit within the last 15 years. Notably, the new guidance extends screening recommendations to heavy smokers who quit 15 years ago or more. The shift in recommendations challenges the previous belief that the risk of cancer decreases with the length of time since quitting smoking.
Dr. William Dahut, Chief Scientific Officer of the American Cancer Society, emphasized that a closer examination of lung cancer diagnosis data revealed an increasing risk of cancer with age, even among individuals who quit smoking 15 or more years ago. The new guidelines aim to counter the misconception that the risk diminishes significantly over time, which may have contributed to the low rates of lung cancer screening. A 2022 report from the American Lung Association indicated that only 5.8% of Americans had undergone lung cancer screening, with rates as low as 1% in some states.
Under the previous guidelines, around 14.3 million people in the U.S. were eligible for screening. The updated recommendations are expected to include an additional 5 million people, offering a broader opportunity for early detection. The prognosis for late-stage lung cancer is grim, with an overall five-year survival rate of 23% for cases diagnosed between 2012 and 2018. In contrast, early screening can significantly improve survival rates, with over 80% of individuals whose lung cancer was caught early still alive after 20 years.
Despite the benefits of lung cancer screening, it remains underutilized, with only a fraction of eligible individuals undergoing the procedure. The low screening rates are characterized as a “national tragedy” by experts, emphasizing the need to increase awareness and accessibility to screenings. The expanded guidelines could potentially save more lives by capturing lung cancers at an earlier, more treatable stage. The guidelines align with the goal of achieving earlier diagnoses and improving outcomes for individuals at high risk of lung cancer.
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