A nationwide study of 50-thousand current and former smokers shows that there were 20 percent fewer deaths among smokers who were screened every year with spiral CT scans, compared to those who got standard x-rays.
With 157-thousand deaths due to lung cancer each year, one surgeon says this is a landmark finding.
Dr. John Kuharczuk, of the Penn Lung Center, says, "We equate the excitement with this study with the excitement of using mammogram screening for breast cancer. We think this will revolutionize our treatment of patients with lung cancer, because we'll be able to find them early."
Dr. Kuharczuk says an early diagnosis can triple the survival rate.
Right now, about three-quarters of all tumors aren't caught until they're advanced.
But some information from this new study is still being analyzed.
And Dr. Drew Torigian, who lead Penn's portion of this study, says there are concerns:
*About yearly exposure to radiation from the scans
*About the 300 to 400 dollar a year cost, which is not covered by health insurance.
*And there is concern about false positives - meaning nodules that are found that are not cancerous. Right now that accounts for 90-percent of lung masses found.
"When a nodule is found, a biopsy may be performed, surgery may be done.And it's conceivable that some of those nodules that LOOK dangerous really aren't, and the procedures that are performed will be unnecessary," says Dr. Torigian.
Dr. Torigian says the complete analysis, which should be coming within a few months, may show that certain age groups or genders might benefit more from the scans than others.
Federal health officials promise that when the analysis is done, it will be made public.
Dr. Kucharczuk says that there are methods to determine who should and shouldn't get invasive procedures without putting a person through unnecessary risks. He adds that with 80 million active and former smokers in the country, the impact will be significant.
"We knew in our hearts this would help. We just needed the data," he adds.
No matter what the final results are and if spiral CT scans will become more widely used for smokers, both doctors say it's important to continue to encourage smokers to quit.