Based on the success of Norwalk Hospital’s low-dose CT (computed tomography) lung cancer-screening program, the hospital is now offering free lung cancer screenings for people who are at risk.

“This is a life-saving test,” said Dr. Alan Richman, chairman of the Department of Radiology at Norwalk Hospital. “In these difficult economic times, we do not want cost to be a barrier and we want to help people readily access the screenings.”

Those at risk, according to Dr. Richman, are current or former heavy smokers between the ages of 55 and 79 years.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in men and in women. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), each year more people die of lung cancer than of colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined. The ACS also estimates there will be 159,480 deaths from lung cancer (87,260 in men and 72,220 among women) in 2013.

In early 2012, Norwalk Hospital became the first hospital in Connecticut to launch a low-dose CT lung cancer-screening program to identify lung cancer in its earliest stages. The program was based upon the findings of the National Lung Screening Trial (NLST) sponsored by the National Cancer Institute. Since then, 350 patients were screened through the Norwalk Hospital program and six seemingly healthy people without symptoms were diagnosed with lung cancer. These cancers would not have been detected through a standard chest X-ray, Dr. Richman said.

Studies have shown that treatment for lung cancer is more effective and the likelihood of death decreases significantly if it is detected early through screening.  However, until recently, there has not been an effective tool for diagnosing early stage lung cancer. The NLST, a multi-year research study of more than 53,000 people conducted at 33 trial sites nationwide, showed a 20% reduction in lung cancer deaths among those who were screened by CT versus those who had standard chest X-rays.

Norwalk Hospital’s free lung screening program has a three-part benefit according to Dr. James Bauman, director of the program. In addition to the “low-dose” non-contrast CT — which produces a three-dimensional image of the lungs for early detection of lung cancer — a coronary calcium score is calculated from the information available from this study. “This can improve risk assessment for heart disease when added to traditional risk factors,” Dr. Bauman said. A smoking cessation program is also offered by Norwalk Hospital to active smokers who enroll in this screening program.

Patients and referring physicians are notified of the test results and a lung health navigator assists patients who have positive findings with any follow-up that is needed.

Information: 855-4CHESTCT.