So you quit smoking, maybe decades ago. That's great. But it still might be a good idea to get regular screenings for lung cancer.
While many former smokers don't get regular screenings, researchers at Mayo Clinic want to expand lung cancer screening to include people who quit smoking more than 15 years ago.
Doing so, they say, would find more cases, find them early, and reduce lung cancer deaths.
“A decline in smoking rates has been, and continues to be, a critical step to reduce lung cancer risk and deaths,” lead author Ping Yang said in a release. “But, it also means that fewer people have benefited from early detection of lung cancer, because more patients don’t qualify for low-dose CT scans.”
Who gets screened
A medical authority, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), sets lung cancer screening criteria. Currently, CT screening is recommended only for older adults who smoked for 30 years and are still smoking, or have quit within the last 15 years.
So last year Yang and her colleagues took a close look at all the newly-diagnosed lung cancer cases in the U.S. They found two-thirds of those patients did not fall within the criteria for lung cancer screening – meaning they didn't get screened. Yet, they got lung cancer.
Now, Yang and her team are trying to identify specific populations who are at risk but falling through the cracks of the system. Their current study found that, compared to other risk categories, patients who quit smoking for 15 to 30 years accounted for the greatest percentage of patients with lung cancer who didn’t qualify for screening. Yet this group made up a significantly large portion of the study group.
“We were surprised to find that the incidence of lung cancer was proportionally higher in this subgroup, compared to other subgroups of former cigarette smokers,” Yang said. “The common assumption is that after a person has quit for so many years, the lung cancer rate would be so low that it wouldn’t be noticeable. We found that assumption to be wrong.”
More attention on former smokers
Yang says the lesson is the need to pay attention to people who quit smoking more than 15 years ago, because they are still at higher risk for developing lung cancer.
Yang believes screening may not be as aggressive as it should be because lung cancer rates in the U.S. are falling. They're falling because fewer people are smoking, and quitting will reduce the chances of developing the disease.
Reduce, but not eliminate. Some people who quit years ago will still develop lung cancer. Detecting those cases early, Yang says, will save lives.