NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Lung cancer is by far the number one cancer killer in the U.S. There have been more than 131,000 deaths this year alone.
Doctors say that number could be reduced if people at risk were screened and their lung cancer found at an early stage.
As CBS2's Dr. Max Gomez reported Tuesday, that's now the official recommendation of a panel of experts.
As smoking has declined in this country, so have lung cancer rates. But since lung cancer usually has few symptoms until it is advanced, doctors have sought ways to detect it at earlier and, presumably, more curable or treatable stages.
"If we can identify nodules, very small, prior to symptoms, which can increase those survivals to anywhere from 75 to 90%," said Dr. Bradley Pua of Weill Cornell Medical Center.
That early detection became feasible with the use of ultra-fast lung CT scans. It has proven to be effective in high-risk individuals -- adults ages 55 to 80 who have a 30 pack-year smoking history. That's the number of packs of cigarettes smoked each day multiplied by the number of years a person has smoked. For example, two packs a day for 10 years is 20 pack-years.
Now, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force is expanding its screening recommendations to include current and former smokers ages 50 to 80, who have a 20 pack-year or more smoking history. They should have an annual lung CT scan. It's quick and painless.
The new guidelines significantly increase the number of people eligible for screening. Most insurance plans are required to cover preventive services, without co-pay, when the task force recommends it with a high enough level of evidence.
It is hoped that the expansion of eligibility will increase screening amongst Blacks, who suffer higher rates of lung cancer despite having lower rates of smoking than whites.
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