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What are Lung Cancer Screening Guidelines?

lung cancer, lung cancer screening guidelinesAccording to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer, by far, is the leading cause of cancer deaths among men and women, alike. In fact, every year, more people die of lung cancer than from colon, breast and prostate cancers combined.[1]

Because lung cancer is so prevalent, lung cancer screening was developed to detect lung cancer in its earliest stages – when it’s less likely to have spread to other areas and more likely to be cured. By the time signs and symptoms of lung cancer appear, the disease is usually too far advanced to be cured.2

Research shows that lung cancer screening reduces the risk of dying from lung cancer.[2]

Who Should Be Screened?

Lung cancer screening is a method of detecting lung cancer in otherwise healthy people who have a high risk of lung cancer. It’s generally recommended for older adults who have a long smoking history with no signs or symptoms of lung cancer.2

Screening for lung cancer is reserved for those with the highest risk of lung cancer. This includes:2

  • Smokers and former smokers aged 55 years and older.
  • Heavy smokers with a 30-pack year or longer smoking history. Pack years are calculated by multiplying the number of packs of cigarettes smoked per day by the number of years you have smoked. For example, a person with a 27-pack year smoking history may have smoked a pack a day for 27 years. A person with a 54-pack year smoking history may have smoked 2 packs of cigarettes a day for 27 years and so on.
  • People who have quit smoking, but who were once heavy smokers.
  • People who are in overall good health. Those with serious health problems are less likely to benefit from lung cancer screening and more likely to experience complications during follow-up. Screening for lung cancer is usually not recommended for people with poor lung function or other health conditions that would make it difficult to withstand lung surgery to remove the cancer. This may include people using oxygen therapy, those with recent, unexplained weight loss, those who have recently coughed up blood and those who have had a chest CT scan in the past year.
  • People with a history of lung cancer who were treated more than 5 years ago.
  • People with other risk factors for lung cancer, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asbestos exposure and those with lung cancer in their family.

What to Expect During Lung Cancer Screening

To screen for lung cancer, doctors use a low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) scan of the chest. The amount of radiation you receive from this scan is much less than a standard CT scan. It adds up to being about half of what you’re naturally exposed to from the environment in a year’s time.2

Here’s what you can expect during a LDCT scan of the chest:2

  • You will be asked to remove some or all of your clothing and don a gown. You’ll also need to remove jewelry, hair clips and other metal objects that may interfere with the CT scan images.
  • You’ll lie on your back on a long table and be given a pillow for your head.
  • A radiology technician will perform the test. The technician will move to a separate room with large windows where she’ll be able to still see you and speak to you over an intercom.
  • You’ll be asked to lie very still while the table slides through the center of a scanner that looks like a large donut.
  • Once the scan begins, the table will move quickly through the machine as the images are created. You may be asked to hold your breath during some parts of the procedure. It’s not unusual for the machine to make loud whirring or clicking noises.
  • Your appointment will generally last about half an hour, although the scan takes far less time than this.
  • Once your scan is complete, you can resume your normal activities.

The images created during the scan will be reviewed by a chest radiologist who will forward the final results to your doctor. Your doctor will then review the results with you at your follow-up appointment.

For more information about lung cancer screening guidelines, talk to your doctor or pulmonologist.

[1] American Cancer Society. Key Statistics for Small Cell Lung Cancer. Last revised January 4, 2018.

[2] Mayo Clinic. Lung Cancer Screening. August 9, 2017.

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