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Lung Cancer Screening

Lung cancer is the No. 1 cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States. This disease is responsible for more deaths annually than breast, prostate and colorectal cancers combined. In the United States, the lifetime risk of developing invasive lung cancer is 1 in 17 for men and 1 in 18 for women.

It is estimated that over 80 percent of lung cancers could be cured if detected at an early stage. CT lung screening is capable of detecting lung nodules at an early stage, therefore catching tumors when they are still small and can be easily treated.

What is a CT lung screening?

CT lung screening is a noninvasive, painless procedure that uses low-dose x-rays to screen the lungs for nodules, some of which may be cancer. Lung cancer screening is not a single test, but a process that includes annual follow-up visits and discussions with an assigned care team.

How is CT lung screening performed?

For a screening, patients lie on their backs on an exam table with arms above their head. They are asked to remain still during the exam. The table you are lying on will move through the scanner to the correct starting position for the scans. Then, while you hold your breath for five to 10 seconds, the table will move through the machine as the actual CT scan is done.

Who is eligible for a lung screening?

Lung cancer screening isn't appropriate for everyone. You qualify for screening if you:

  • Are between 55 and 77 years old.
  • Currently smoke or are a former smoker who quit within the past 15 years.
  • Have smoked 30 pack-years or more. (A pack-year is used to describe how many cigarettes you have smoked in your lifetime, with a pack equal to 20 cigarettes. If you have smoked a pack a day for the past 30 years, or two packs a day for the past 15 years, you have 30 pack-years.)

What happens after the CT lung screening?

If a lung nodule is found on your CT scan, your doctor may recommend a follow-up CT scan, usually in six months to check if the nodule has grown. If the nodule does grow, your physician may recommend further testing or a biopsy. However, since more than 95 percent of lung nodules found are not cancer, you may need to go back only in one year to continue the process of screening. If nothing is detected on your CT scan, you will need to return for an annual screening.

What are the benefits of a lung screening?

The chances of finding cancer early is higher, and that generally means there are more treatment options available. A recent study showed that after 6 1/2 years, among those who were eligible for screening, those who were screened with CT were 20 percent less likely to die from lung cancer compared to those who were not screened with CT.

What are the harms of lung screening?

There are some harms of being screened that you should be aware of before participating. There is the chance of a higher number of false alarms. A false alarm is a result that looks like cancer but is not, and that false alarm might lead to other testing, possibly including invasive procedures like surgery or biopsy—which can sometimes cause serious complications. But the good news is the vast majority (over 96 percent) of nodules detected through screening are not cancer. There is also a risk over time of increased radiation from the CT scans. For heavy former or current smokers, the benefit of screening is probably much greater than the harm from radiation.

What is the most important thing you can do to reduce your risk of lung cancer?

Stop smoking. Regardless of your screening decision, avoiding cigarettes is the most powerful way to lower your chance of dying or suffering from lung cancer, emphysema and heart attacks. For help quitting, call 336.633.7788 or register for a free QuitSmart Program today.