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A study by the American Cancer Society estimates 12,000 deaths annually could be avoided in the United States among the highest risk smokers and former smokers through a national lung cancer screening program.

The estimate comes from the National Lung Screening Trial, which in 2010 found 20 percent fewer deaths from lung cancer in people at highest risk for the disease when they were screened each year with CT scans, Reuters reports.

Researchers determined 8.6 million Americans fall into the high-risk category because of their smoking history. Someone would be considered at high risk if they smoked 20 cigarettes a day for 30 years, or 40 cigarettes a day for 15 years. Of these smokers, about 60,000 die from lung cancer each year. That number could be reduced to 48,000 if all of those smokers had a CT scan to catch early-stage lung nodules that could be surgically removed, the researchers concluded in the journal Cancer.

“Our findings provide a better understanding of the national-level impact of [low-dose CT] screening, which has the potential to save thousands of lives per year,” said researcher Ahmedin Jemal, DVM, PhD, in a news release.

Paul Pinsky of the Division of Cancer Prevention at the National Institutes of Health told Reuters it is unlikely screening on such a mass scale would take place. He pointed out not every heavy smoker or former smoker would want to be screened, and if they did, there would not be enough centers that could handle the testing.

Larry Kessler of the University of Washington in Seattle, who studies the diagnostic value of screening technologies, added the costs of such screening would be high, and the tests come with risks. Some people will receive a false positive result, and will be subjected to further painful and invasive testing, he noted. These patients may end up having unnecessary and potentially dangerous surgery.

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