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Lung Cancer: Early Detection

Screening is the process of looking for cancer in people who don’t have symptoms. Your doctor may recommend screening if you have an increased risk for lung cancer. Screening can sometimes find cancer early, when it is likely to be easier to treat.

Screening tests for lung cancer

In general screening is not done for lung cancer. This is because studies have not found that tests like X-rays or looking for cancer cells in coughed-up mucus (sputum cytology) actually save lives. But the following test may help find lung cancer early.

Low-dose CT (LDCT) scan

This test is also called a spiral CT scan. It uses X-rays to create detailed pictures of your lungs. To have the test, you lie still on a table as it passes through the center of the CT scanner. A CT scan is painless and noninvasive. It does not need any special preparation. You may be asked to hold your breath one or more times during the scan. A CT scan can show some abnormal areas that a chest X-ray might miss, but these areas often turn out not to be cancer. You may still need more invasive tests to be sure.

Not all experts recommend this test. It’s not clear if spiral CT scans can find cancer in people who are not heavy smokers or who have not smoked at all. It’s also not clear if the test can find cancer in people younger than age 55. Studies of the spiral CT scan have only been on heavy smokers who were 55 to 74 years old.

Experts also aren’t sure how long the scans should be done.

Spiral CT scans also have some downsides. They find many abnormalities that turn out not to be cancer but that still need more testing to be sure. This can cause people to feel anxious. It may also mean unneeded tests such as more CT scans. And it might mean more invasive tests such as biopsies or surgery, even when a person doesn't have lung cancer. Spiral CT scans also use a small amount of radiation during each test.

What expert groups recommend

Several groups have issued lung cancer screening guidelines. The groups include the U.S Preventive Services Task Force, the American Society of Clinical Oncology, the American Cancer Society, and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network. The guidelines vary slightly among groups, but in general they recommend that people be screened or talk with their healthcare provider about screening if they:

  • Are 55 to 74, or slightly older

  • Are current or former smokers. Former means quitting within the last 15 years.

  • Have at least a 30 pack-year history of smoking

  • Are in good enough health to be helped by screening. This means that if an early lung cancer is found on screening, they would be able to survive lung surgery to remove it.

These groups also generally recommend that screening should be done at a center that has experience with screening. The center should also be able to offer with tests and treatments that might be needed as a result of screening.

Talk with your healthcare provider

If you have risk factors for lung cancer, such as a history of smoking, talk with your healthcare provider about whether lung cancer screening might be right for you. It's important to consider your risk for lung cancer and whether the screening could help you. You should also think about the limits of screening and the risks that might come along with testing.  

Online Medical Reviewer: Alteri, Richard, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Gersten, Todd, MD
Last Review Date: 1/3/2016
© 2013 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.