Lung cancer may not be the most common type of cancer, but it’s the most deadly. Thanks to low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) scans, however, lung cancer can now be found earlier, giving patients a better chance of survival. Recent results of a study that followed patients for five years found 20% fewer lung cancer deaths among heavy smokers screened with LDCT scans. Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) began offering this screening in early 2012 to patients who meet certain criteria (see table below).

“Currently, lung cancer is the number one cancer killer in the world,” says Shamus Carr, MD, an HCI investigator and an assistant professor in the Department of Surgery at the University of Utah. “A 20% decrease in deaths is more than we see from the use of mammography and colonoscopy—both common screening procedures for cancer. This new screening ability will save countless lives.”

One person who knows this firsthand is Claudia Crosland, a Salt Lake City woman in her 60s and a smoker for 43 years. “I’m probably one of the luckiest girls alive,” says Crosland, who attended a press conference at HCI announcing the life-saving screening. She had an LDCT scan after hearing an interview with a celebrity who said he regretted smoking cigarettes, but a scan showed his lungs were OK. “My immediate thought was I need to get tested,” she says.

Crosland’s instincts proved right: her screening showed she had early stage lung cancer. She’s doing well after surgery removed the cancer.

Because smoking tobacco is the greatest risk factor for lung cancer, HCI provides active smokers with information about smoking cessation programs. Adds Carr: “Just because we have a way to screen for lung cancer does not diminish our focus on getting smokers to try and quit.”

The National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) recommends screening with LDCT for certain people at high risk for lung cancer, including

People 55-74 years old
AND
More than 30 pack years* of smoking
AND
Currently smoking or quit within the past 15 years
AND
No symptoms of lung cancer and no history of any cancer within the last five years

Over 50 years old and more than 20 pack years* of smoking
AND
One or more of these risk factors:

  • Exposure to radon
  • Workplace exposure to chemicals
  • Family history of lung cancer
  • Disease history (COPD or pulmonary fibrosis)

*Pack years = packs smoked per day x number of years smoked.

 For example, 10 pack years = 1 pack smoked per day for 10 years.

As a result of this study, the standard lung cancer screening guidelines established by the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) now includes an LDCT scan. The NCCN develops screening guidelines with a panel of cancer experts from several National Cancer Institute-Designated Cancer Centers, including HCI.

“Our physicians helped write these guidelines, and we are the first hospital in the state of Utah to offer comprehensive lung cancer screening based on the NCCN guidelines,” says Carr.

Lung Cancer Screening Press Conference at HCI

Crosland (center) and other lung screening patients share their LDCT success stories at an HCI press conference in 2012.

The study, called the National Lung Screening Trial, followed more than 50,000 patients for five years and randomly assigned participants to one of two screening procedures—either an LDCT or a standard chest X-ray—given annually for three years. The group screened with LDCT showed 20% fewer deaths from lung cancer. The University of Utah screened 3,300 patients for the study. The results were published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Screening for lung cancer using LDCT isn’t for everyone. Patients are encouraged to speak with their doctor about the risks and benefits of lung cancer screening. For more information, visit our Lung Cancer Program website.