Nearly 175,000 Americans will be diagnosed with lung cancer this year.
The majority will die because standard chest x-rays often don't spot it until it's too late.
Medical reporter Jessa Goddard has more on a new study that proves there may be a better way to detect the disease.
Doctors have long had doubts that early detection of lung tumors could improve survival, and also feared screening would lead to too many false alarms and unnecessary biopsies.
But this study offers the strongest evidence yet that screening smokers with chest scans can save lives.
The study strongly suggests screening smokers for lung cancer with computerized chest scans can save lives.
Researchers found people whose early lung tumors were detected by CT scans and promptly removed had an estimated 10 year survival rate of 92 percent.
Much better than the approximately 70 percent who typically survive, and far better than the dismal 5 percent who make it that long after the disease has spread beyond the lungs.
The problem, until now, has been early detection.
Dr. Daniel Scaperoth, a radiation oncologist says, "a lot of times, the small tumors, when they're stage 1, you can't detect them, at least the patient can't detect it. There's no symptoms, so they're breathing normally, they're having normal activities, they're not particularly short of breath, they don't see any difference, and yet this tumor's growing inside them."
Studies in the 1970's found screening smokers with regular x-rays did not improve lung cancer survival, and such efforts were largely abandoned until the 1990's when CT scans were developed.
These sophisticated x-rays produce images of the lungs from many angles and can reveal pea-sized tumors long before they produce symptoms.
But there are drawbacks, the scans cost between two and three hundred dollars, and insurers are not covering them, because the government doesn't recommend them.
Plus, with every CT scan, you're exposing your lungs to radiation.
Dr. Scaperoth says, "technology is moving that way. If we can get the price down and we can get less and less radiation dose to the patient, then i think maybe this is the way to go."
Until there's more proof, patients considering screening should ask their doctors about the pros and cons.
Researchers say CT scans offer hope, particularly for people who are at-risk for the disease, including current smokers, former smokers, and in some cases, people who were never smokers but exposed to second-hand smoke.