High-Tech Lung Cancer Test Cuts Risk of Dying

No cancer kills more Americans than lung cancer. Estimates are more than 220,000 will be diagnosed this year and 157,000 will die.

On Thursday, for the first time, a major government study showed a high-tech way of screening for lung cancer can drastically reduce the death toll, CBS Medical Correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook reports.

(Scroll down to watch a video this report)

After 50 years of smoking, 67-year-old Steffani Torrighelli knew she was at high risk for lung cancer. Two years ago she enrolled in a study, and sure enough a CT scan picked up an early stage tumor before she had any symptoms.

"I said, 'God gave me a second chance in life,' and that's how I looked at it," Torrighelli said.

Now, for the first time, that screening test has been proven to save lives in heavy smokers like her.

The study looked at more than 53,000 men and women who smoked the equivalent of a pack a day for about 30 years. These older smokers, ages 55 to 74, were screened with either chest X-ray or a more sensitive CT scan that gives a three-dimensional view. After five years, those who got the scans had 20 percent fewer deaths from lung cancer.

"The 20 percent reduced mortality indicates that this approach is able to save lives," said Dr. Douglas Lowy of the National Cancer Institute.

The effectiveness of CT scanning for lung cancer has been debated for years. A key concern: the test picks up lung abnormalities that are not cancer. These are common in heavy smokers and can result in costly, anxiety-producing tests.

Another concern is radiation. A CT scan, even in low dose, delivers about 15 times more radiation than a chest X-ray. But the new study suggests the benefit of finding lung cancer early trumps the risks.

"This is one of the most important cancer findings in the last 10 years," said Dr. Harvey Pass of the department of cardiothoracic surgery at NYU Langone Medical Center. "It proves that you can save patients' lives by detecting cancer early."

Four years ago, Barton Lazarus had a CT scan that caught an early lung cancer missed by a chest X-ray. Doctors removed the tumor, and today he's cancer free.

Since Torrighelli's lung surgery two years ago, she's also cancer free and vigilant about screening.

"I can walk," said Torrighelli. "I can do everything that I did before. I'm feeling good. I feel perfect."

Right now, 85 percent of patients diagnosed with lung cancer die because it's not caught soon enough. However, not all of the 80 million smokers in the United States should get screened just yet, only high risk ones.

There are some drawbacks. For every 300 people who are screened, one life is saved, but 70 people were told they had an abnormality that turned out to be totally benign.

Another consideration is cost. The CT test costs between $300 and $400 and is not covered by Medicare or most plans. However, the government will be looking closely at this trial.