Special CT scan catches more lung cancer, saves lives

WASHINGTON — A special type of CT scan can detect lung cancer early enough to save some lives, the National Cancer Institute announced Thursday — the first evidence that a screening test may help fight the nation’s top cancer killer.

At issue are controversial spiral CT scans, where a rotating scanner views the lungs at various angles to spot growths when they’re about half the size that a standard chest X-ray can detect. Some previous studies have suggested that the earlier detection helps, while other research concluded it may do more harm than good by spotting too many benign growths.

The massive National Lung Screening Trial enrolled 53,000 current or former smokers to try to settle the debate. It found 20 percent fewer deaths from lung cancer among those screened with spiral CTs than among those given chest X-rays, the NCI said Thursday, a difference significant enough that it ended the study early.

The actual number of deaths averted was fairly modest — 354 died in the spiral CT group over the eight-year study period compared with 442 deaths among those who got chest x-rays.

The NCI said it’s not clear that all smokers should get the scans, which aren’t risk-free.

The best advice for avoiding lung cancer remains to quit smoking, said NCI Director Dr. Harold Varmus.

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