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Lung Cancer Screenings Recommended For Heavy Smokers

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States. Doctors say it kills more patients every year than breast, prostate and colon cancer combined.

Many people have stopped smoking partly because of the increased awareness of the dangers.

Videos by the Centers for Disease Control featuring former smokers and their health problems have brought national attention to lung cancer and other diseases.

Many people have been able to kick the habit, but they may still worry about how much damage all those years of smoking did to their bodies.

A task force for the federal government recently recommended that long-time heavy smokers, current and former, get screened for lung cancer.

Hennepin County Medical Center is one of the places that offers the test. One of their radiologists took us through the testing process on Wednesday.

It looks like a tiny dot, but to the trained eye it's a possible sign of trouble, inside a man's lung.

The image comes from a CT scan rather than an X-Ray.

"In the last couple of years, we have had a very exciting study that showed us conclusively that using low-dose CT scans, we can not only detect lung cancer early, but we can also make a dent in the mortality rate," said Dr. Gopal Punjabi, a radiologist at HCMC.

Last week, they took their first appointments for lung cancer screenings, and on Wednesday, the first patients had it done.

"The essential goal of screening is to shift the time of diagnosis to an earlier, more treatable stage of lung cancer," Dr. Punjabi said.

The process is quick, about five seconds. And you can get the results before you leave.

Just like getting mammograms to detect breast cancer, lung cancer screenings offer a huge benefit.

"The 30-pack-year smoker ... That's 30 years of a pack a day. Those people, if we catch the lung cancer early, there's a chance of improving not just their time, but their time could be longer," said Dr. Chip Truwit, director of radiology at Hennepin County Medical Center.

Doctors say if you are a heavy smoker, the best thing you can do is stop smoking -- today.

"You will start feeling better, often within days or weeks. Your breathing will get better, you will start having more energy, your risks of heart attack will go down, your risk of lung cancer will go down, your risk of all kinds of diseases will go down," Dr. Punjabi said.

The radiologists told me it's quite common to find small nodules. It happens about 40 percent of the time.

Most of them will not be cancerous, but doctors will watch to see if they change or grow year-to-year.

The screenings at HCMC cost $99.

Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis also offers lung cancer screenings. It costs $150 there.

What's considered "heavy smoking?"

A heavy smoker is someone who has smoked a pack a day for 30 years, or two packs a day for 15 years.

The best candidates for these screenings are people between 55 and 79 years of age.

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