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Study recommends lung cancer screening

After decades of reservations about lung cancer screening, the American Cancer Society says there now is enough evidence to recommend it, but only for current and former heavy smokers from ages 55 to 74 and after a frank talk about risks and benefits.

The new guidelines, announced Friday, are based on a major study in 2011 that found annual, low-dose CT scans -- a type of X-ray -- could cut the chances of dying of lung cancer by 20 percent and from any cause by nearly 7 percent.

The study only included older people who smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for 30 years or the equivalent. Whether screening would help others isn't known, so scans were not advised for them.

"We're trying to make sure we restrict harm that might come from screening," such as unneeded biopsies and follow-up procedures when scans falsely suggest cancer, said Dr. Richard Wender, family medicine chief at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

Lung cancer is fairly rare before age 55, so "the benefits of screening are going to be less if you start at a younger age." Wender, a former Cancer Society president, led the guidelines panel.

The scans cost $100 to as much as $400 and are not covered by Medicare or private insurers. "We believe insurance companies should cover this test for the right people -- not for everybody," Wender said.