Vanderbilt’s Groundbreaking Lung Cancer CT Program Makes Early Detection More Accessible

With any kind of cancer, early detection can be the difference between a quick treatment or a prolonged, difficult battle. That’s why the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommended two changes that will nearly double the number of people eligible for lung cancer screening. They include:

  • Lowering the screening age from 55 to 50
  • Reducing the number of smoking history pack years from 30 to 20

A 2019 study by Vanderbilt researchers was key to the changes. Previous trials indicated that CT scans provided earlier detection of lung cancer and reduced deaths from the disease by 20% compared to those who had standard chest X-rays. Not only are the CT scans brief in duration and expose patients to minimal radiation, but they are covered by most insurance companies.

To expand lung cancer screening access, the Vanderbilt Lung Screening Program offers CT scans for $145 for people who do not meet screening criteria. The program also provides qualitative calcium scores linked to smoking-related cardiac disease and provides tobacco cessation counseling.

A Deeper Dive Into the Study

Vanderbilt researchers also discovered that the previous screening guidelines were often too narrow for African Americans. In some cases, that could lead to later diagnoses and a decreased chance of recovery. The 2019 study revealed that among smokers diagnosed with cancer, only 32% of African Americans were eligible for screening versus 56% of white people under the previous guidelines. The updated USPSTF guidelines greatly expand access to lung cancer screening for women and African Americans.

“The recommendations put forth by the USPSTF are a step forward in the right direction to improve lung cancer screening eligibility criteria for those at high risk,” said the study's lead author, Melinda Aldrich, PhD, MPH, associate professor of Medicine, Thoracic Surgery and Biomedical Informatics. “However, more work is needed to address disparities that still likely exist.”

Smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer, and Tennessee ranks fifth in the U.S. for new lung cancer cases per 100,000 people. Those at the highest risk are those who have smoked at least 20 pack years over their lifetime and still smoke or have quit in the last 15 years. A pack-year is a way of calculating how much a person has smoked—one pack year is the equivalent of smoking one pack of cigarettes a day each year. People between 50 and 80 who are current or former smokers should ask their doctor if they are at high risk for lung cancer.

To Learn More

For more information on the Vanderbilt Lung Screening Program, call (615) 322-0580 or email Alexis Paulson, MSN, APRN, clinical coordinator of the Vanderbilt Lung Screening Program at