Lung Cancer Scans Are Recommended for People 50 and Older With Shorter Smoking Histories

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He and other researchers also said that patients may be missing out on lung-cancer screening because they just don’t know about it. It has not received as much attention as other cancer screenings, like mammograms, colonoscopies and Pap tests. Some doctors may not encourage it as strongly, and especially with former smokers, may not take the time to calculate a patient’s smoking history to see if it matches the guidelines.

The guidelines say people with a history of 20 “pack-years” should be screened. The term “one pack-year” can refer to smoking one pack of 20 cigarettes a day for a year — or two packs a day for half a year, or half-a-pack a day for two years. So, 20 pack-years would include people who smoked two packs a day for 10 years, or half-a-pack a day for 40 years.

The changes in the criteria for smoking history and screening age were based on new data from multiple studies, Dr. Alex H. Krist, the task force chairman and a professor of family medicine and population health at Virginia Commonwealth University, said in an interview.

“Lung cancer is the No. 1 cancer killer in America,” Dr. Krist said, adding that with the new data, “we have even more confidence that screening does save lives.”

Like other kinds of screenings affected by the pandemic, those for lung cancer remain below 2019 levels, according to an analysis of Medicare data by Avalere Health, a consulting firm, conducted for Community Oncology Alliance, which represents independent cancer specialists.

While the number of screenings had started to rebound in the summer, the fresh spike in Covid cases later in the year caused them to fall again. In November, screenings were down by 30 percent, compared to 2019, and the number of lung biopsies had also dropped, indicating cases were not being diagnosed.

Using its own grading system, the task force gave its recommendation a B, saying there was “moderate certainty” that annual screening was of “moderate net benefit.”