Health officials may be one step closer to a widespread screening policy aimed at detecting lung cancer in its earliest and most treatable phase.
If further studies confirm findings from Italian researchers, doctors may one day use a combination of spiral computed tomography and positron emission tamography scanning to uncover the cancer before it becomes more difficult to treat.
Lung cancer is the number one cause of cancer death worldwide, accounting for more than 1.3 million deaths a year. Since the disease is hard to detect in early and treatable stages, most cases are found only after the cancer has spread. Five year survival rates are low; in Europe, only about 10 percent of patients live that long. Studies have shown CT scans can identify the disease in an early stage in individuals considered at high risk for lung cancer, but they also identify many noncancerous lesions in the process.
In this study, researchers used PET scans to confirm findings from CT scans in more than 1,000 heavy smokers considered at high risk for lung cancer. All had annual CT scans for up to five years. As with previous studies of CT scanning for lung cancer, nodules were identified in a significant percentage of the group -- 29 percent. Most were small, and the protocol called for lesions up to five millimeters to be followed up with using another scan in a year rather than further treatment. Only 9 percent of the participants underwent further investigation of suspicious lesions using a higher-resolution CT scan with or without PET scanning. In this group, 23 percent were found to have lung cancer. Doctors were able to completely remove the cancerous tumors in 95 percent of the cases.