Lung Cancer Screening
What is lung cancer screening?
Cancer screening tests are used to find pre-cancers or cancers at an early stage when they would likely be easier to treat. Screening people at high risk for lung cancer can help diagnose more lung cancers early and save lives.
What type of test is used to screen for lung cancer?
In the past, healthcare providers used chest x-rays and testing sputum to screen for cancer. However, these tests were not able to detect cancers early, nor did they result in people living longer. Studies have found that a type of CT scan, called low dose computed tomography (LDCT), is able to find lung cancer while it is still small in people at high risk. This results in a lower risk of dying from lung cancer.
What is an LDCT?
An LDCT uses x-rays and computer technology to create detailed pictures of the lungs. An LDCT uses considerably less radiation than a standard CT scan, which is better for the patient. During the test, the patient lies on a table that moves back and forth while the machine takes x-ray pictures from many angles. The test is fast and painless.
What are the risks of lung cancer screening with LDCT?
There are several concerns with this test:
- False-positive results – this is when the test appears to be abnormal, but no cancer is found. This results in additional tests and procedures and anxiety for the patient.
- False-negative results – this is when the test does not find any abnormality, but there is actually cancer present. This can result in a delay in the cancer diagnosis and worse survival for the patient.
- There is a small risk of developing cancer from exposure to radiation from the test.
- Insurance providers will only pay for this test for people who meet the guidelines for high risk. Always check with your insurance provider to find out what is covered before having the test.
Who should have an LDCT for lung cancer screening?
Many organizations recommend lung cancer screening every year for people who meet the following:
- Age 50 to 80 years old and in fairly good health.
- Currently smoke or have quit within last 15 years.
- Have at least a 20-pack year history (determine your pack years by multiplying the number of packs per day times years smoked).
Why not do lung cancer screening for everyone?
Research studies that people who met this definition of high risk got the most benefits from lung cancer screening. The study did not find the benefits outweigh the risks for other people who may be at risk.
What if the test finds something abnormal?
The scan will be reviewed by a radiologist to look for any areas of abnormality. In lung cancer, these are most often in the form of a “nodule.” Keep in mind that most lung nodules are NOT cancer. If a nodule is found, you may:
- Have a repeat LDCT in a few months to see if it has changed.
- See a pulmonologist to have the results reviewed.
- Have further testing of the nodule with PET scan or biopsy.
Learn more about lung cancer.