Spotting Lung Cancer Before It's Too Late

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In the race against cancer, time is of the essence. In few instances is this more true than in cases of lung cancer, the leading cause of cancer death in the United States, with a yearly fatality toll of 160,000. In Fridayís edition of the British medical journal Lancet, a team of researchers announced the finding of a new way to get a precious head start against the deadly disease: CAT scans of the lungs, which allow doctors to spot the aggressive lung-cancer tumors long before they can be detected by an X-ray and while they are still small enough to be cured.

The study, which involved the CAT-scanning of 1,000 smokers and former smokers aged 60 or older, "is interesting and exciting," says TIME medical columnist Christine Gorman. "Lung cancer has a dismal survival rate," she says. "If you can catch a tumor earlier, before it spreads, itís an important development." Of course, like most research findings, this one needs further study. One shortcoming of the latest study was that it was conducted without the use of a control group. And so, among other things, says Gorman, "researchers will need to show the technique is reliable and wonít yield false positives." In addition, if the CAT scans hold up under further scrutiny, another shortcoming will still have to be addressed: "Only a few medical centers currently have the specially trained staff that can do this type of scan," says Gorman.