Lung Cancer Screening

Author: Christina Bach, LCSW, OSW-C
Last Reviewed: March 26, 2023

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?

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 could result 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 much less radiation than a standard CT scan. During the test, you lie 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. You may need additional tests and procedures which can cause increased anxiety.
  • 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 cancer diagnosis and treatment.
  • 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 the 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).
  • Have tried to quit smoking if you are currently smoking.

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 a PET scan or biopsy.

Learn more about lung cancer.

Resources for more information

American Lung Association

Radiologic Society of North America, Inc.

References

American Cancer Society. Can Lung Cancer Be Found Early? 2019.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Who Should be Screened for Lung Cancer?. 2019.

Lam, S., & Tammemagi, M. (2021). Contemporary issues in the implementation of lung cancer screening. European Respiratory Review, 30(161).

Toumazis, I., Bastani, M., Han, S. S., & Plevritis, S. K. (2020). Risk-Based lung cancer screening: A systematic review. Lung Cancer, 147, 154-186.

US Preventive Task Force https://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/recommendation/lung-cancer-screening

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