How The Guidelines Have Changed Regarding Lung Cancer Early Detection Efforts

Lung cancer is the leading cause of U.S. cancer deaths. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has expanded screening guidelines in an effort to help increase early detection rates. On CBSN Denver, Dr. Surit Sharma, Pulmonologist at Sky Ridge Medical Center, explained the new guidelines.

Video Transcript

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, and catching it early is key. That's why the US Preventative Services Task force has expanded screening guidelines. So those new recommendations include screening people between the ages of 50 and 80 who have a 20-pack per year smoking history. They also recommend screenings for current smokers or smokers who have quit within the past 15 years.

So joining me now is Dr. Surit Sharma, a pulmonologist at SkyBridge Medical Center. And Doctor, how are these recommendations different from the old ones?

SURIT SHARMA: So in 2011 there was a landmark study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that demonstrated benefits, a mortality benefit. We could save lives if you screened individuals, and the recommendation was between the ages of 55 and 80 and individuals that had a 30-pack a year smoking history. Studies subsequent to that along with statistical modeling has shown that if we broaden that age range a little bit to 50 as the younger cutoff and the pack years to 20, it'll still benefit and we'll be able to save more lives. And so that's how those recommendations came about.

- Tell us why these guidelines are so important.

SURIT SHARMA: So lung cancer, even with all the advances we've made in cancer therapy and so forth, is still a fatal condition for most people. Our best chance, in fact our only chance of cure, is to catch this in its very earliest stages. And what we've grappled with over the years is, how do we identify these individuals so we can identify, make a diagnosis and cure them surgically? And so these guidelines have demonstrated that if we focus on a high-risk group of individuals, that we can intervene in a way that we end up saving a lot of lives, you know, over the years. And so for that reason it's extremely important that we catch this condition very early.

- Absolutely. And to catch it early, what are some of the common symptoms of lung cancer? What should people be paying attention to?

SURIT SHARMA: First, I want to emphasize that sometimes, and often, lung cancer can be silent. That is to say, most people won't have symptoms. And that's why, you know, these guidelines are important, that you identify high-risk individuals who may have no symptoms whatsoever.

Having said that, individuals that have symptoms-- it may be a cough, it may be shortness of breath, it may be what we call haemoptysis-- so you're coughing up blood-streaked sputum-- you know, things of that nature. Now please understand that many people will have these symptoms and they don't have lung cancer. So I don't want people to be frightened out there.

But, you know, those tend to be the common symptoms of lung cancer. But for many people, they don't have symptoms until the disease is already spread, and clearly we want to catch it much sooner than that.

- Absolutely. And we all know that smoking is a risk factor for lung cancer, but what are some of the other risk factors that we should know about?

SURIT SHARMA: So smoking is by far the biggest, like you mentioned, and probably 90% of cases are related to smoking. Secondhand smoking probably also influences. So there are some studies that demonstrate secondhand smoke.

Radon is another element. Again, home radon exposure. You know, it is a little bit more nebulous as far as cause and effect, but we do know that-- that radon is a big factor. And then there's other exposures, which are clearly demonstrated-- so asbestos for example. So if you ever go see a lung doctor, they'll always ask about potential asbestos exposure. And I would say those are the big ones. There are other, you know, factors out there, but how much of a role they play is a little bit more nebulous.

- Interesting. Well, thank you so much, Dr. Sharma, for all that important information. It's really important to just have people aware of this. We appreciate it.

SURIT SHARMA: Very good. Thank you.

- You can check out the new lung cancer screening guidelines for yourself on our website,