Lung cancer deaths not prevented by routine X-rays, study finds

Flickr/Pulmonary Pathology

lungs, chest, x-ray, stock, 4x3
Flickr/Pulmonary Pathology

(CBS/AP) Can routine chest X-rays prevent deaths from lung cancer? A new government study says no.

PICTURES: 20 most shocking X-rays

The 13-year study tracked more than 150,000 Americans between the ages of 55 and 74 and found those who had four annual chest X-ray screenings were just as likely to die of lung cancer as those who didn't get screened. Whether they smoked didn't matter.

Screening refers to routine tests in people without symptoms. Doctors still support chest X-rays for diagnosing people with lung cancer symptoms, including a coughing up blood and a persistent cough.

Chest X-ray screening for lung cancer was commonplace decades ago, and some doctors continue to recommend routine screening for smokers and former smokers. The new study findings should put an end to that, said Robert Smith, director of cancer screening at the American Cancer Society.

Smith said routine chest X-rays in healthy people may lead to potentially harmful tests and procedures and are "a waste of time."

The study - published in the Oct. 26 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association - found there were about 1,200 lung cancer deaths in people who were screened with X-rays and in those who got usual medical care. That's equals roughly 14 deaths per 10,000 people each year.

"We were really hoping chest X-rays might be beneficial," partly because they're cheap - about $60 versus up to thousands of dollars for CT scans, said study author Dr. Christine Berg, chief of the National Cancer Institute's early detection research group.

Lung cancer is the nation's leading cancer killer. The disease will strike about 220,000 Americans this year, and more than half that number will die from lung cancer. Less than 1 percent of never-smokers will develop the disease, compared with 18 percent of current smokers who will get lung cancer by age 75. The risk is lower but not zero for former smokers, depending on how long ago they quit, Berg said.

Routine screening concerns have been raised recently by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force about pap tests for cervical cancer, PSA tests for prostate cancer screening, and mammograms for breast cancer, CBS News reported.

The task force concluded in 2004 that there was no evidence to support any method of routine lung cancer screening in people without symptoms, including X-rays and CT scans.

What might help screen certain patients? CT scans, based on a recent study that found fewer lung cancer deaths among current or former smokers who had special CT scans versus chest X-rays.

The task force may incorporate those findings into their new guidelines, said Dr. Michael LeFevre, co-vice chairman of the task force and a family physician at the University of Missouri. But that process may take up to two years, he said.

But CT scans also can yield false positive results, so it is unlikely any group will recommend them for screening nonsmokers.

WebMD has more on lung cancer.

Comments