What is a lung cancer screening?
Lung cancer screening helps doctors find small tumors or nodules (masses of extra cells) in the lungs before they grow or spread to other parts of the body. Finding cancer early means it is easier to treat and the chances of survival improve greatly.
Screening is recommended for anyone at high risk for lung cancer. High risk is defined as:
- Anyone age 55 to 77 with a history of 30 “pack years” or more (who still smokes or who quit within the last 15 years). (30 “pack years” means 30 years of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. 15 years of 2 packs a day also equals 30 pack years.)
- People with a smoking history of 20 “pack years” or more and with other risk factors. (Risk factors can include personal or family history of lung cancer, exposure to radon, and several occupational risk factors — talk to your doctor to learn more.)
- People considered high risk should be screened for lung cancer once a year.
Smoking is the biggest risk factor for lung cancer. Smoking causes about 85 percent of lung cancers. The more you smoke, the higher the risk of developing lung cancer. The risk goes down if you quit. The risk also increases with age — most lung cancers occur in people age 55 or older.
What are the risks?
During your screen, you are exposed to a small amount of radiation. However, the benefits of finding lung cancer early far outweigh the risks of radiation. The radiation exposure is very small.
Some people worry about the tight spaces of CT scans. It may help to know that your head will be outside of the scanner throughout the scan, and it only takes a few seconds. A healthcare provider called a technician can also see and hear you throughout the scan.
What are the benefits?
Screening gives you a chance to catch cancer early. If it’s caught early, experts estimate that up to 80% of lung cancer could be cured. Catching the cancer early means that the tumors can be removed before they spread to other parts of the body.
Screening sometimes finds other problems that may have gone undetected. Treating these problems can also improve your health.
How is it done?
During your lung cancer screening, a low-dose CT (computed tomography) scanner captures images of your lungs using a rotating x-ray. A radiologist then looks at the images for anything abnormal.
You’ll need to go to the hospital for your screening appointment. Once in the exam room, you’ll lie on your back on a table with your arms above your head. While you hold your breath (just for a brief time), the CT scanner rotates to take pictures of your lungs. The scan should only take a few minutes and is painless.