You may have heard in the news that smokers who have an ultrafast or low dose CT scan have lung cancers detected early enough to reduce death from lung cancer by about 20%. This is a study of a large number of current and past heavy smokers ages 55-74 who had CT scans or chest x-rays annually for 3 years. Whether or not the findings of this study extend to other age groups or people who have smoked less is not known at this time. A discussion with your physician on whether or not you would be in the category who would benefit from this is something that you need to discuss with your health care provider.
Unfortunately, a large percentage of smokers will have findings on a CT scan that are uncertain and which sometimes necessitates follow-up CT scans or a lung biopsy. When this is done, it is done at some risk for causing the lung to collapse or a more severe complication. Furthermore, CT scans expose patients to radiation which can increase the risk for certain types of cancers. Therefore, patients should only have CT scans when they really need them. CT scans are not likely to be recommended for smokers other than those aged 55-74 years who are current or past heavy smokers. The Director of the National Cancer Institute’s Early Detection Research Group states, “We’re not recommending CTs. We’re saying the results only pertain to the group that was studied. The worried well, those exposed to secondhand smoke, the 50-year-old woman who smoked half a pack a day in college—we don’t want them to get the message that they should run out and get a CT.” Finally, the best way to treat lung cancer is to prevent it. Therefore, people who have never been smokers should not start nor should they be around secondhand smoke because it is a risk factor for developing lung cancer. The sooner a smoker stops smoking the less risk that the ex-smoker has of developing lung cancer, and once the number of years that an ex-smoker has stopped smoking reaches 15 years or so, the risk of developing lung cancer is almost that of a non-smoker. Thus, the best advice is for smokers to stop smoking and leave it to their health care provider’s advice on whether they should have a CT scan. Click here for more information on CT scans.