More people in the United States die from lung cancer than any other type of cancer. Most people who develop lung cancer (more than 8 in 10) get it from smoking. If you currently smoke, the best way to lower your risk of developing lung cancer is to quit.
If you are interested in reading about the other risk factors for lung cancer, check our lung cancer article after you finish with this one.
Ask your doctor about getting screened (tested) for lung cancer if these apply to you:
- You’re age 50 to 80
- You have a history of heavy smoking — specifically, you smoked an average of 1 pack of cigarettes a day for 20 years or 2 packs a day for 10 years
- You smoke now or you quit within the last 15 years
Your doctor may suggest that you get screened once a year with LDCT (low-dose helical computed tomography). LDCT takes detailed pictures of your lungs, which can help find lung cancer early — when it may be easier to treat.
Why it’s done
Lung cancer screenings are completed to detect the presence of lung cancer as a preventative measure, in otherwise healthy individuals that have a risk of developing lung cancer. Lung cancer screenings are designed for older adults who are longtime smokers with no signs or symptoms of lung cancer.
Ultimately, the goal of lung cancer screening is to detect lung cancer at an early stage. In its earlier stages, lung cancer is much more likely to be able to be cured with minimal treatments as opposed to late-stage lung cancer, that can be much more difficult to take care of.
By the time that symptoms of lung cancer develop and are noticed, the cancer is often extremely advanced. In essence, routine lung cancer screenings reduce the likelihood of the patient developing late-stage lung cancer and reduces the risk of dying due to it.
What should I expect during my screening?
During a LDCT scan of the lung, you will lay on your back on a long table and will be instructed to keep still.
The technologist that runs your scan will move to a separate room so that he or she can monitor the computer images of your lungs that generate, to ensure they are of good quality. He or she will still be able to see and hear you.
The table you are laying on will slide through the center of the CT machine, which is the machine that scans the lungs to identify abnormalities by compiling the scans into images. You may be asked to briefly hold your breath so that the machine can get a clear image, and you may hear some clicking or knocking as the machine moves.
Expect your scan itself to take about ten seconds from start to finish.
After your screening
When your scan is complete, you are free to go about your day normally.
The images that the machine created are reviewed by a chest radiologist, which is a doctor who specializes in diagnosing lung cancer through these images.
- No abnormalities. If there are no abnormalities, that is great! If you are at risk for developing lung-cancer, your doctor will probably recommend that you return for another scan in one year.
- Lung nodules.
- Lung cancer may appear as a small spot that appears inside the lungs. Unfortunately, most lung abnormalities appear the same. Examples include scars from lung infections, and noncancerous growths.
- Most small nodules do not require immediate attention but will likely continue to be monitored. At your next screening, the doctor will assess if the nodule is growing. If it is not, it is likely noncancerous, but if it is growing, more tests will need to be completed.
- Large nodules are likely to be cancerous, and you will be referred to a pulmonologist, which is a lung specialist, to remove a piece of the nodule for further testing.
- Other health concerns. Your screening may detect other lung or heart problems, which is common to see in smokers or past smokers, like emphysema or hardening of arteries in the heart. Your doctor will determine if there is any action that needs to be taken on these complications, and do not be afraid to ask your doctor to explain what these are or what they mean for your health long-term.
What about cost?
Insurance plans must cover lung cancer screening for adults ages 50 to 80 who are at high risk for lung cancer. That means you may be able to get lung cancer screening at no cost to you. Talk to your insurance company to find out more.
What do I ask the doctor?
When you visit the doctor, it helps to have questions written down ahead of time. You can also ask a family member or close friend to go with you to take notes.
Print this list of questions and take it to your next appointment.
- Am I at risk for lung cancer?
- Do you recommend that I get screened for lung cancer? Why or why not?
- If you recommend this screening for me, how often do I need to get it?
- What will happen when I get screened for lung cancer? How do I prepare?
- Does the screening have any risks or side effects?
- How long will it take to get the results?
- If the results show that I may have cancer, will I need more tests to be sure?
- Can you suggest ways to help me quit smoking?
- What else can I do to lower my risk of lung cancer?