Why not screen younger or lighter smokers? There’s no data to tell whether they’d be helped. Lung cancer is rare before age 50, and the major study that showed screening could save lives enrolled only heavy smokers starting at age 55.
But screening isn’t harm-free. A suspicious scan is far more likely to be a false alarm than a tumor, LeFevre noted. Yet patients may undergo invasive testing to find out, which in turn can cause complications.
Moreover, radiation accumulated from even low-dose CT scans can raise the risk of cancer. And occasionally, screening detects tumors so small and slow-growing that they never would have threatened the person’s life.
While screening clearly can benefit some people, “the best way to avoid lung cancer death is to stop smoking,” LeFevre added.
The task force proposed the screenings last summer but published its final recommendation Monday in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine. That clears the way for insurers to begin paying for the scans, which cost between $300 and $500, according to the American Lung Association.
Under the Obama administration’s health care law, cancer screenings that are backed by the task force are supposed to be covered with no copays, although plans have a year to adopt new recommendations.