Lung Cancer Screening

Topic Overview

Screening tests help your doctor look for a problem before you have symptoms. This increases your chances of finding the problem early, when it's more treatable.

Studies don't show that routine screening for lung cancer is right for most people. But it may help those who have the highest risk for lung cancer—people 55 and older who are or were heavy smokers.

Lung cancer screening is done with a low-dose CT scan. A CT scan uses X-rays, or radiation, to make detailed pictures of your body.

Who should be screened for lung cancer?

Annual lung screening is only recommended for heavy smokers. That means people with a smoking history of at least 30 pack years. A pack year is a way to measure how heavy a smoker you are or were.

To figure out your pack years, multiply how many packs a day (assuming 20 cigarettes per pack) you smoke by how many years you have smoked. For example:

  • If you smoked 1 pack a day for 15 years, that's 1 times 15. So you have a smoking history of 15 pack years.
  • If you smoked 1½ packs a day for 20 years, that's 1.5 times 20. So you have a smoking history of 30 pack years.
  • If you smoked 2 packs a day for 15 years, that's 2 times 15. So you have a smoking history of 30 pack years.

Experts recommend annual lung cancer screening if:

  • You are 55 to 74 (some say 79) years old.
  • And you have a smoking history of at least 30 pack years.
  • And you still smoke, or you quit within the last 15 years.

Risks of lung cancer screening

There is a small chance of getting cancer from being exposed to radiation. A low-dose CT scan uses more radiation than a regular chest X-ray. But it uses much less than a regular-dose CT scan. You and your doctor will decide if the possibility of finding lung cancer early is worth the risk of having this test and being exposed to the radiation.

CT scans can also find nodules or other problems that aren't cancer. This could cause you to have other tests or treatments that it turns out you didn't need, and they could cause their own problems.

Lung cancer screening won't prevent cancer. And it may not find all lung cancers. But research shows that if people who are at higher risk have this test every year, they're less likely to die from lung cancer.1

References

Citations

  1. Wender R, Fontham ET, et al. (2013). American Cancer Society lung cancer screening guidelines. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, 63(2): 107–17.

Other Works Consulted

  • American Lung Association (2012). Providing Guidance on Lung Cancer Screening To Patients and Physicians. Accessed July 18, 2013: http://www.lung.org/lung-disease/lung-cancer/lung-cancer-screening-guidelines/lung-cancer-screening.pdf.
  • Detterbeck FC, et al. (2013). Screening for lung cancer. Diagnosis and management of lung cancer, 3rd ed. American College of Chest Physicians evidence-based clinical practice guidelines. Chest, 143(5, Suppl): e78S–e92S.
  • Wender R, Fontham ET, et al. (2013). American Cancer Society lung cancer screening guidelines. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, 63(2): 107–17.

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Howard Schaff, MD - Diagnostic Radiology
Last Revised September 19, 2013

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

© 1995-2014 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.