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In this new year, smokers and ex-smokers can resolve to help science battle lung cancer

Lung-scanning study can also help smokers kick the habit

originally posted on December 31, 2002

ANN ARBOR, MI - Smokers who resolve to kick their tobacco habit in the new year, and those who have already quit, know they're doing something good for their health.

But now, they can also do something for the good of society, too. By taking part in a new study, they can help scientists conquer lung cancer, the deadly disease that kills more Americans each year than any other form of cancer. And in the process, they can get help with quitting or staying quit.

Smokers and former smokers between the ages of 55 and 74 are needed for the National Lung Screening Trial, being conducted at medical centers around the United States, including the University of Michigan Health System. Former smokers must have quit in the last 15 years. Participants must have no history of lung cancer.

Many Michiganders have already signed up for the study, which scans participants' lungs with high-tech cameras to look for signs of cancer, and tracks their health for several years, looking annually for signs of lung cancer.

The ultimate goal of the nationwide study is to determine whether regular CT scanning or chest X-rays can help reduce lung cancer death rates by catching cancer early.

Participants at the U-M site will also give samples of blood, urine and phlegm. These will help scientists look for clues as to what makes people vulnerable to lung cancer, and perhaps allow them to find tiny "biomarkers" common to many cancer patients that could someday be used to test for lung cancer.

Ultimately, the doctors leading the study hope to find an effective way to provide early, reliable detection of lung cancer. They know that millions of American smokers and former smokers are likely to develop lung cancer sometime in their lives, and they want to help them have a better chance of survival. Smoking is by far the biggest risk factor for lung cancer, causing 87 percent of cases.

Already, the scans of more than half of the U-M study participants have shown an abnormality in their lungs that needs follow-up scanning. And about 10 percent of the participants had even more suspicious-looking areas on their lungs that need immediate examination. As part of the study, they're being referred to lung cancer specialists to be evaluated further.

Meanwhile, study participants who want help with stopping smoking are getting referrals to proven smoking cessation programs in their area.

There's still room for hundreds more participants in the study, called the National Lung Screening Trial. Participants are assigned to either chest X-rays or CT scans by random chance - like the flip of a coin. For more information on the study, call 1-800-865-1125, or visit the web page.

The study is badly needed because of the huge death toll that lung cancer takes every year - about 157,400 Americans, more than die from prostate, breast, colon and ovarian cancer combined - and because of claims that have been made about the power of new spiral CT machines to detect lung cancer.

In the last few years, CT scans have been shown to pick up small cancers, and it's become much easier to see those small cancers with a CT scan than with a chest X-ray. But there isn't yet enough proof to say that CT scans help reduce the lung cancer death rate. Currently, 85 percent of patients die within five years of a lung cancer diagnosis.

Some doctors even worry that, because normal tissue can look suspicious on a high-quality spiral CT scan, the scans will cause needless worry and even lead people to have tests or surgery that could harm them.

Depending on what the study finds, doctors may be able to say whether all American smokers and ex-smokers should get their lungs scanned regularly - or whether scientists need to keep looking for better ways of finding lung cancer in its treatable early stages.

To settle the debate, the National Cancer Institute and the American College of Radiology Imaging Network are sponsoring the study.


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