The habit of cigarette smoking can be a nasty one for your health, but there's a resource in York that can give former and current smokers some peace of mind.

WellSpan York Hospital offers CT lung cancer screenings, which were recently recommended by the American College of Chest Physicians for older, heavy smokers.

The hospital has been offering the screenings on its Apple Hill campus since the fall of 2012, said Dr. Brian Pettiford, a thoracic surgical oncologist with WellSpan Health.

"With the lung cancer screening, that's relatively new," he said.

Up until this point, there were no good screenings for lung cancer, Pettiford said. There are prostate, breast and colon cancer screenings, but the yearly deaths from lung cancer exceed deaths from all three combined, he said.

"It's no secret: Smoking causes lung cancer," he said, calling the screenings a "no-

brainer" for those at risk.

The screening: The screening creates 3-D images of the insides of a patient's lungs, allowing physicians to more easily identify nodules, or potentially cancerous cells.

Because it's relatively new, the screening is not covered by insurance, Pettiford said. But the cost comes out to about $100 for the low-dose CT scan, and any follow-up tests needed if an abnormality is found will ultimately be covered by a patient's insurance, he said.

For heavy smokers who think that's a lot of money, Pettiford put it in other terms.

"Ask them to tell me how much two cartons of cigarettes are," he said.

And the screening only takes a couple of minutes, Pettiford said.

Patients can set up a screening through their primary care doctor, who will receive the results. If a small spot is found, doctors don't rush patients off to biopsy, Pettiford said: The majority of false positives are resolved without invasive tests.

But if there is cancer that needs to be surgically removed, Yorkers are covered: Pettiford recently became one of the few surgeons in the country to use a robotic-assisted procedure combined with brachytherapy, a form of radiation oncology, to treat lung cancer.

Catch it early: In May, the American College of Chest Physicians began to recommend the screenings.

That comes on the heels of 2011's National Lung Screening Trial, which found a 20 percent reduction in lung cancer deaths among current or former heavy smokers who receive the new screening as opposed to a traditional X-ray.

And that 20 percent is "absolutely, positively significant," Pettiford said.

"What we're acting upon is the result of a well-designed study well-regarded by the medical community," he said.

With lung cancer, the key is diagnosing it early -- but only about 15 percent of patients are diagnosed at stage one, Pettiford said.

"Lung cancer is extraordinarily difficult to treat," he said. "History has demonstrated horrible survival for advanced stages."

So catching the cancer early through screenings might be the answer to longer, healthier lives for those at risk, Pettiford said.

"There needs to be some form of screening to better improve patient outcomes," he said. "This is a good start."

-- Reach Mollie Durkin at mdurkin@yorkdispatch.com.