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Merrimack Valley

August 5, 2013

Doctors: Cancer scans a vital tool

Group recommends screenings, insurance coverage for smokers

Annual lung cancer screenings for heavy smokers may soon be covered by health insurers, dramatically boosting the chances for early detection of what is the deadliest form of the disease.

More than 8,000 Massachusetts residents die each year from the effects of smoking. Nationwide, smoking-related deaths total 160,000 annually and tobacco use is considered the leading cause of preventable death and illness.

Local doctors report that most lung cancer patients aren’t diagnosed until the advanced stages of the disease have taken hold. As a result, chances of survival are considerably slimmer than with other types of cancer.

But that all could change if an independent group of government advisers finalizes its first-ever recommendation for annual lung cancer screenings among those deemed at greatest risk. Experts say the change would clear the way for insurers to cover CT scans, a type of X-ray, for current and former heavy smokers ages 55 to 79.

“Early detection is the key,” said Dr. Han-Ting Lin, medical director of oncology and hematology at Holy Family Hospital in Methuen. “It’s a no-brainer. We want to detect lung cancer at a very early stage.”

A heavy smoker is considered an individual who smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for 30 years or the equivalent, such as two packs a day for 15 years. Not included in the group is people who quit at least 15 years ago, or people too sick or frail to undergo cancer treatment.

If the recommendation by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force is finalized, which is expected, some medical experts estimate the change will cut down the annual number of smoking-related deaths in the country by about 20,000.

“I truly believe it can save lives,” said Gabriele Southgate, a senior staff physician with Lahey Clinic who works at the Parkland Medical Center campus in Salem, N.H. “That is huge progress, and more progress is needed.”

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