Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide. More people die of lung cancer than from breast, colorectal and prostate cancers combined. Screening increases the chance of finding lung cancer early when it is easier to treat and more likely to be cured. By adhering to annual lung cancer screening and recommended follow-up exams, there is a greater chance of not dying from lung cancer.
Who should be screened for lung cancer?
Your doctor can help you decide if lung cancer screening is right for you. The United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening for individuals who:
- Are age 50-80 (50-77 if you have Medicare)
- Are a current smoker or have quit less than 15 years ago
- Have a smoking history of at least 20 pack-years*
- Have no signs or symptoms of lung cancer
*A “pack year” is smoking an average of one pack of cigarettes per day for one year. For example, a person could have a 20-pack-year history by smoking one pack a day for 20 years or two packs a day for 10 years.
What is lung cancer screening?
Lung cancer screening involves a CT scan of the chest that uses a small amount of radiation to look for abnormalities or nodules in the lungs. Low-dose CT scans are the only proven method to find lung cancer early before symptoms occur. By the time symptoms of lung cancer occur, the cancer has most likely spread to other areas of the body and is much harder to treat.
When abnormalities are found
A Mercyhealth radiologist reviews the images to look for any abnormalities. Most lung nodules that are found are not going to be cancer, but some are. If a lung nodule is found on your CT scan, your doctor may recommend a follow-up CT scan, usually in 3-6 months, to monitor the nodule to make sure it is stable and has not grown. If the nodule looks worrisome or in the unlikely case it grows larger on the follow-up scan, further testing with a PET scan or tissue biopsy of the nodule may be recommended. Your doctor will discuss any follow-up exams with you and may also refer you to see a pulmonologist.
Risks of screening
People who are screened might need further tests that show they don’t have lung cancer. Our staff will talk to you about whether or not you need more tests. Other risks include the following:
- Some cancers may be hidden or too small to detect
- Lung cancer screening CT scans expose the chest to low doses of radiation
- Finding lung cancer that would not have harmed the person in his or her lifetime.
- Follow-up tests on nodules that look suspicious but turn out not to be cancer.
Is screening covered by insurance?
For individuals who meet the criteria, low-dose CT screening for lung cancer are covered every year by Medicare and most private insurance plans at 100% with no out-of-pocket expense. Additional testing and follow-up scans may have a cost such as a co-pay or deductible.
Reducing your risk for lung cancer
There are many causes linked to lung cancer. Smoking is the leading risk factor for lung cancer and is responsible for 80% of lung cancer deaths. The remaining 20% have never smoked. The best way to reduce your risk of lung cancer is to stop smoking.
Other risk factors include exposure to:
- radon gas
- second hand smoke
- air pollution
- diesel exhaust
- certain metals (arsenic, chromium, cadmium)