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U.S. Preventative Services Task Force Advises Heavy Smokers to Get Lung Cancer Screening

Update Date: Jul 30, 2013 01:15 AM EDT

The US Preventive Services Task Force  (USPSTF), a panel of experts appointed with setting guidelines for screening and preventing major illnesses, has issued new guidelines for lung cancer screening in high-risk populations, particularly older people with a long history of smoking.

The recommendation, which could apply to about nine million Americans, would mean Medicare and many health insurance companies must start providing the test for free to patients. 

The screening test, which costs $250-$300, may prevent as many as 20 percent of future deaths from lung cancer, the USPSTF said Monday in its recommendations, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

"It ranks it alongside mammography, colonoscopy, some other established cancer screening tests," says Dr. Kenneth Lin, a former task force member who's now an associate professor of family medicine at Georgetown University. "This screening test can sometimes find lung cancers at a treatable stage and ... we can cure people that we otherwise might not have been able to cure."

Meanwhile, Dr. Christopher Lathan, a lung cancer expert at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School in Boston, says he is "ecstatic". "This is a tremendous opportunity to really change the tide in lung cancer treatment," Lathan told NBC News.

"I think this is an advance but at the same time I don't think that everybody should necessarily run out and get this test because of all the problems that the test can cause in the long run," Lin added. Under the panel's proposal, screening is expected to save one life for every 320 people screened. By comparison, it takes 900 to 1,900 mammograms to save one life from breast cancer (depending on whether those screened are older or younger). And LeFevre estimates that it takes about 500 colonoscopies to save a life from colon cancer.

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