Lung cancer is responsible for 160,000 deaths every year, largely as a result of smoking.

To date, smoking prevention and cessation have been the primary means to battle the No. 1 cancer killer in the U.S. But adoption of recommendations announced in July by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force would dramatically boost efforts to save lives, said public health and tobacco control advocates during an expert panel discussion webcast on Wednesday.

Fred Grannis and Cheryl Healton

Thoracic surgeon Fred Grannis of City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte, Calif., and Cheryl Healton, president and CEO of Legacy, discuss screenings to prevent lung cancer deaths during a webcast on Tuesday. Photo by David Fouse

“There is another weapon in this war: low-dose computerized tomography,” said Cheryl Healton, president and CEO of Legacy, a public health organization dedicated to reducing tobacco use.

More people die from lung cancer than any other type of cancer. Unfortunately, survival rates have stagnated at around 15 percent for the past four decades. The biggest challenge is early detection.

According to Healton, “by the time you’re symptomatic, you’re in late stage-3 or stage-4,” which dramatically limits treatment options.

Low-dose computerized tomography, or CT, screening has been shown effective in detecting the disease at an earlier stage. When used responsibly to screen a high-risk population of current or former heavy smokers, it can save thousands of lives each year, according to the National Cancer Institute.

“This is a good tool and the science now clearly supports it as an important intervention,” APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin said.

If adopted, the task force recommendations would lead to lung cancer screening receiving a “B” rating, giving physicians clear guidance for offering annual low-dose CT scans to eligible patients. It would also ensure greater access to screening since under the health reform law preventive services with an “A” or “B” rating by the task force are required to be covered by most health plans.

“This is some of the proof that the Affordable Care Act will be so effective,” said Marcus Plescia, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Cancer Prevention and Control.

Still, ensuring widespread adoption of these new recommendations will be key.

Thoracic surgeon Fred Grannis of City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte, Calif., likens the effort to the historic removal of the handle from London’s Broad Street water pump to stop the spread of cholera. It’s important to shut off the flow of lung cancer deaths by implementing tobacco control legislation and helping people quit smoking, but in this case, cancer will continue to take lives 30, 40, 50 years from now, Grannis said.

“Screening is a very important tool,” he said.

Added Laurie Fenton Ambrose, president and CEO of Lung Cancer Alliance, which co-hosted the webinar: “Don’t smoke. Stop smoke. And get screened if you’re at risk. That’s got to be the public health message.”

With the comment period now closed, the task force is expected to release final recommendations at the end of the year or in early 2014.