Lung Cancer Screening | Facts & FAQs
Lung cancer continues to be the leading cause of cancer death for both men and women in the United States, causing more deaths than colon cancer, breast cancer, and prostate cancer combined. If you are a current or former smoker, your risk of developing lung cancer may be up to 25 times higher than someone who never smoked. A computed tomography (CT) scan is the only proven effective way to screen for lung cancer.
WHO SHOULD BE SCREENED?
The US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends yearly lung cancer screening for people who:
- Have a history of heavy smoking, and
- Smoke now or have quit within the past 15 years, and
- Are between 55 and 80 years old.
“Heavy smoking” means a smoking history of 30 pack years or more, and a “pack year” is smoking an average of one pack of cigarettes per day for one year. For example, a person could have a 30 pack-year history by smoking one pack a day for 30 years or two packs a day for 15 years.
The Task Force recommends yearly lung cancer screening until the person being screened turns 81 years old, has not smoked in 15 years, or develops a health problem that makes him or her unwilling or unable to undergo surgery if lung cancer is found.
This test is only for patients without symptoms. People with lung cancer typically do not feel anything or have symptoms until the cancer has spread. If you are in a high-risk group, consider screening even if you feel in perfect health.
HOW DOES THE SCREENING TEST WORK?
Lung cancer screening uses lower dose CT scan. There is no preparation required on your part before the test. The scan will take less than 10 minutes. You will be exposed to low levels of radiation during the CT scan, similar to the amount of radiation to which you would be exposed from normal, background, day to day radiation over a 1 year period. The risks of radiation from this exam are much less than the risks of a potential lung cancer.
A lung cancer screening CT scan is looking for small nodules in the lungs that could be early cancers. Finding a small cancer at an early stage, before there are symptoms, makes lung cancer much easier to treat. But patients should also be aware that it is very common to have non-cancerous lung nodules. More than 50% of patients will have one or more lung nodules and the vast majority of these are not cancerous. If a lung nodule has suspicious features then we will recommend immediate additional tests. If the nodule is small and has imaging characteristics that suggest it is most likely not cancerous, then we simply watch it over time to make sure there is no growth.
Lung cancer screening CT can also identify risk factors for heart attack and stroke by looking for calcifications in the small arteries that supply the heart.
No cancer screening test is perfect, but this is the first screening ever proven to save lives from lung cancer.
Lung cancer screening is not a one-time test. You should be screened every year for as long as your doctor recommends so that any cancer that may be small and slow growing will be found as early as possible. The yearly screening CT scans for lung cancer are similar to testing for breast cancer with yearly screening mammography.
Lung cancer screening with CT should not replace or take precedence over the importance of quitting smoking. In fact, the single best thing you can do for your health is to quit smoking. You might think it doesn’t matter, but there are many benefits to quitting, even now. Your healthcare team wants to help you; don’t be afraid to ask them for support.
If you have already quit smoking, this is an excellent step and enormously important for your health. But your risk of lung cancer is still higher than someone who has never smoked. Think about what motivated you to quit smoking in the first place and use it as a reminder to keep up with yearly lung cancer screening if your doctor recommends it, as screening is another important part of continuing to take care of your health.
WHO WILL INTERPRET MY SCAN?
Lung cancer screening CT scans can be more challenging to read than regular CT scans. It is best for a radiologist with experience reading and reporting these scans to interpret your study. Diversified Radiology has board certified radiologists who specialize in lung cancer screening interpretation. If something is found that needs further evaluation, your images will be discussed at a multidisciplinary conference and, using accepted guidelines, our radiologists, pulmonologists, oncologists, surgeons, radiation oncologists, and pathologists will coordinate your treatment and next steps.
WHERE SHOULD I GO FOR MY SCREENING CT SCAN?
It is best to go to a screening center that has been accredited by the American College of Radiology (ACR) to perform a lung cancer screening.
For those who fit the high-risk criteria, most insurance plans and Medicare cover lung cancer screening with no co-pays or deductibles.