Lung Cancer Screening Guidelines

In the United States, lung cancer takes more lives than colon, breast and prostate cancers combined. According to the American Cancer Society, it is by far the leading cause of cancer death, accounting for about 1 in 5.  

Early detection through lung cancer screenings is incredibly important for this type of cancer. When lung cancer is found early, before it has spread to other parts of the body, it is more likely to result in a positive outcome. 

Despite the seriousness of lung cancer, some people with earlier-stage cancers can be cured. A study by the National Cancer Institute found that lung cancer screenings, particularly low-dose CT scans, helped reduce lung cancer deaths among people who smoke by 15% to 20%.

Many times, symptoms of lung cancer are not evident until the disease has begun to spread. If you are age 50 or older, are a current smoker (or a former smoker who quit less than 15 years ago) and are in good health with at least a 20-pack year smoking history, talk to your doctor about getting screened. 20-pack year is one pack of cigarettes per day for 20 years or two packs a day for 10 years, for example. 

Lung Cancer Risk Factors 

Smoking is the biggest risk factor for getting lung cancer. But it is possible for nonsmokers to develop lung cancer. Other risk factors include:

  • Exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Radon
  • Asbestos
  • Arsenic
  • Coal products
  • Air pollution
  • Radiation therapy
  • Family history

Lung Cancer Screening Options

A low-dose computed tomography test (low-dose CT scan) is a test used to screen for lung cancer at an earlier stage, when treatment is more effective. It’s the only proven test to screen for early detection and diagnosis of lung cancer.

What to Expect

What to expect during a low-dose CT scan

A low-dose CT scan uses a special X-ray machine and a low-dose of radiation to create high-quality images of your lungs. The exposure to radiation in a low-dose CT scan is more than a standard X-ray, but up to 90% less than a conventional CT chest scan. The procedure is painless and non-invasive. No preparation is required.

When you arrive at your appointment and register, you will be taken to the CT room. They will ask you to lay on a table and move you in and out of the machine three times. From the time you walk into the CT until you walk out takes about 15 minutes.

The results are read by a radiologist and typically available within 2-3 business days. Low-dose CT scan result could show:

  • If there were no abnormalities found on your CT, your doctor will likely recommend annual scans. These regular scans may continue until your doctor deems it no longer necessary, due to age or other developing health problems.
  • Small nodules in the lungs are not uncommon among those who are screened for lung cancer. Sometimes, these may indicate early lung cancer. However, many other lung conditions might look similar, including lung infection scars and noncancerous growths. When small nodules are detected, your doctor may continue to monitor you through regular screenings. In some instances, your doctor may want you to have another CT scan in a few months to see if the nodules are growing. If they are, they may be cancerous.
  • If a large nodule is found, your provider might refer you to a pulmonologist for additional testing to determine if it is cancerous. This testing may include a biopsy or positron emission tomography (PET) scan.
  • In addition to nodules, your CT scan may also find other lung or heart problems common in people who have smoked for a long time. These include emphysema, hardening of the arteries and heart disease. Your doctor will discuss these results with you to determine the next steps.

A nurse will call you to review the results, discuss the recommendation and answer any questions or concerns.

What to Expect During your Biopsy

If testing indicates possible cancer, your provider may perform a biopsy to confirm the presence and type of cancer. This is a procedure which removes a piece of the nodule for testing. 

There are a few different ways a lung biopsy might be done.

  • Needle biopsy – A needle is inserted into the lung to extract a small sample of tissue.
  • Bronchial or transbronchial biopsy – A thin tube with a camera at the end is inserted into the mouth and guided down the throat to the lungs to obtain the tissue.
  • Endobronchial ultrasound (EBUS) – A flexible tube with a camera and ultrasound technology is inserted into the windpipe to obtain images, tissue and fluid from the lungs.

Get Started

Making an appointment with your primary care provider is the first step to getting screened for lung cancer. They’ll go over your risk factors and screening options, and guide you on next steps.

Cancer Risk Assessment Hero

Lung cancer health risk assessment

When caught early, you can increase your five-year survival rate of lung cancer by 59%. This quick assessment estimates your lung cancer risk. It looks at number of packs and years smoked along with your lifestyle, genetics and personal health history. This makes it easy to talk to your provider to see if you should get screened.
Take the assessment


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