New lung cancer screening guidelines recommended by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force will help address health disparities and catch more cases of lung cancer, earlier. The goal is to reduce the number of deaths from the biggest cancer killer in America.

“More Black smokers and women will be eligible,” said David Cooke, chief of the new UC Davis Health Division of General Thoracic Surgery. “The new guidelines are not a panacea because actual screening rates, especially among communities of color, are abysmally low, but the new guidelines will no doubt save more lives.”

Blacks, women and younger people tend to smoke less, which means they often don’t meet existing screening thresholds, despite being at risk for lung cancer. The task force recommendation means private insurers must offer the screening without a copay to those who are eligible.

Under the new guidelines, anyone between the ages of 50 and 80 who has smoked at least 20 “pack-years” and either still smokes or quit within the last 15 years will be eligible. A “pack-year” means smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for a year or an equivalent amount. Someone could qualify by smoking a pack a day for 20 years or two packs a day for 10 years. Since 2013, low-dose CT scans have been recommended only for heavier smokers (30 pack-years), starting at age 55.

Lung cancer is the nation’s leading cancer killer of both men and women, according to the American Lung Association (ALA). Smoking causes nearly 90% of lung cancer cases and, unfortunately, over 70% of lung cancer cases are diagnosed at an advanced stage when survival rates are low.

Nearly 160,000 Americans die from lung cancer annually, which is more deaths than from breast, colon, prostate and pancreatic cancers combined, but studies show only about 5% of those eligible for lung cancer screening get screened.

ALA reports that Black Americans with lung cancer were 16% less likely to be diagnosed early, 19% less likely to receive surgical treatment, and 7% more likely to not receive any treatment compared to white Americans.

“There are still plenty of barriers to getting screened, including lack of access to health care,” said Cooke. UC Davis Health is committed to improving access to lung cancer screenings and started a multidisciplinary Comprehensive Lung Cancer Screening Program in 2013. For more information on how to get a lung cancer screening, call 916-734-0655 or contact your primary care physician.