The Scoop on Lung Cancer Screening
Lung cancer causes more deaths than breast, colon, and prostate cancer combined. However, lung cancer may still be curable when it is caught early, which can be done in a screening. Lung cancer screenings aren’t recommended for everyone, but for those who are at high risk, it can save lives. Read on for the scoop on lung cancer screening.
What is Lung Cancer Screening?
Screening is looking for cancer before a patient has symptoms. Doctors recommend lung cancer screenings to people who may be at high risk for getting lung cancer (more on that later). Just because a doctor suggests getting a screening does not necessarily mean that the patient has lung cancer.
Generally, patients who are getting screened for lung cancer will get a computerized tomography (CT) scan of the lungs to look for cancer. During the CT scan, the patient lays on a table and is asked to hold very still while the table slides through the center of a machine that creates an image of the lungs. If the screening tests come back abnormal, the patient may need more tests. These are called diagnostic tests.
What are the Risks?
There are some risks involved with lung cancer screening. Both false positives and false negatives can occur. If a test comes back negative when there is actually cancer, a person may not get medical treatment even if they have symptoms. False positives can result in unnecessary diagnostic tests like biopsies, which can cause the lung to collapse. While lung screenings use low dose CT scans, there is some exposure to radiation, which can lead to other cancers.
Although there are risks associated with getting screened, for the group of people at high risk for getting lung cancer the benefits may outweigh the risks. A large study from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) found that screening for lung cancer helps lower deaths. The study involved 53,454 participants who were current or former heavy smokers between the ages of 55 and 74. The trial compared chest x-rays and CT scans in three screening rounds and it had a cutoff to stop as soon as there was a 20 percent difference in death rates. The trial ended up being stopped sooner than expected, showing that diagnosing the disease early in high-risk populations helps survival rates.
Screening is the only way to find and diagnose cancer at an early stage, possibly when it can still be cured. Someone may not feel that they need to be screened if they have no symptoms, but by the time a patient has symptoms the cancer may be at a more advanced stage and less treatable.
Who Should get a Screening?
The US Preventative Task Force, an independent group of medical experts who advise the government on health policies, recommends that adults between the ages of 50 and 80 who have a 30-pack year history and who currently smoke or have quit smoking in the past 15 years get a screening for lung cancer. You can figure out pack years by multiplying the number of packs smoked daily by the number of years a person has smoked.
To get your questions answered and learn more about lung cancer screening, tune in to Abington Health’s Health Chat, Screening for Lung Cancer and Options for Treatment, with thoratic surgeon Colleen B. Gaughan, MD and medical oncologist Mark L. Sundermeyer, MD. The chat is on Wednesday, January 21 from 6-7 p.m. Learn more and sign up here.This is a paid partnership between Abington Health and Philadelphia Magazine's City/Studio