If you’ve ever been a regular smoker, the first thing you need to know is that lung cancer kills more Americans every year than colon cancer, prostate cancer and breast cancer combined. It is the leading cause of cancer deaths in this country for both men and women.
The second thing – and maybe the most important – is that your chances of surviving a bout of lung cancer are dramatically improved if you catch it before you experience your first symptom. Studies have shown that an early diagnosis – through low-dose CT scans – can reduce mortality rates by 20 percent.
If you meet the current screening guidelines, a simple 10-minute test gives you and your doctor a chance to find this disease in its earliest stages. When that happens, your team can begin early treatments and interventions, giving you the best chance at a longer life.
Recent data suggests that only 16 percent of lung cancer cases are caught in the earliest stages – before the disease has a chance to spread to other organs. Once that spread occurs, the five-year survival rate is only 5 percent.
Who Should Be Screened?
Lung cancer screening is recommended for people considered to be at high risk because of a combination of smoking history and age. Those guidelines, from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, were last revised in early 2021 to expand eligibility for more than 6 million people considered to be at risk.
The new criteria suggest annual screenings for people who:
- Have a 20-pack year or greater smoking history, and
- Currently smoke or who have quit within the past 15 years, and
- Are between the ages of 50 to 80.
A “pack-year” is defined as smoking one pack of cigarettes each day for a year. So, smoking one pack a day for 20 years would create a 20-pack year history. Smoking two packs a day for 10 years would also create the same history.
If you are showing signs or symptoms of lung cancer, it’s probably too late for a preventive screening. At that point, you will more likely be a candidate for a regular CT scan.
Lung cancer symptoms include:
- Cough that gets worse or doesn’t go away
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Coughing up blood
- Feeling exhausted all the time
- Unexpected and unexplained weight loss
Lung Cancer Screening: What To Expect
Lung cancer screenings are both quick and painless. The screening is a low-dose CT (LDCT) scan – a special type of X-ray imaging machine that takes multiple pictures of your chest while you lie on a table that slides into and out of the machine. The images are then combined by a computer to create a detailed image of your lungs. The test takes less than 10 minutes.
The radiologist will then examine the images for signs of suspicious lung nodules. The results are generally back in the hands of your primary care physician withing two days.
Suspicious nodules could be nothing more than scar tissue from previous lung infections. But they also could be early signs of cancer. Your doctor may recommend a follow-up scan (after a few months or even a year) to watch for growth. If your doctor suspects the nodule could be cancerous, a biopsy may be suggested. This can be accomplished in several ways:
- A long, thin tube (bronchoscope) is passed down your throat and into your airways to reach the nodule. A small tissue sample is retrieved by a tiny set of tweezers attached to the end of the scope.
- When the nodule is on the outside of the lung, your doctor may go through the skin of the chest wall. A thin, hollow needle (precisely guided by CT scan) is used to grab a tissue sample.
If your doctor strongly suspects cancer, surgery may be recommended to remove the nodule and surrounding tissue. This may also be suggested if the nodule cannot be reached by needle or bronchoscope.
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