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7 Facts About Lung Cancer Screening – Including A New Life-Saving Test

female provider holding up a lung xray
Lung cancer is the second most common type of cancer in the US, with more than 224,000 Americans diagnosed every year. It is also the leading cause of death from cancer each year in this country. Until recently, there was no reliable way to screen for this deadly disease.

Keywords: until recently.

In 2011, researchers conducting the National Lung Screening Trial concluded that for some patients, the risk of death from lung cancer dropped 20% when physicians used a new screening test known as low-dose computed tomography, or LDCT. The test is similar to the familiar CT scan used routinely in medicine.

Seven Facts About Lung Cancer and LDCT

Since this screening is still fairly new, many people have questions about it. Ana S. Kolansky, MD, Co-Director of the Penn Medicine Lung Screening Program, explains 7 facts about lung cancer and LDCT.

Fact #1: Lung cancer is not always fatal

It might surprise you that lung cancer is one of the easiest cancers to treat—if it’s detected early.

“Lung cancer is usually not detected early enough,” Dr. Kolansky explains. “The chest radiograph, or chest X-ray, often cannot detect lung cancer when it is small. Now, LDCT scans help us find cancer in its earlier stages, when we can treat it most effectively.”

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Fact #2: Screening is critical for former smokers

LDCT lung cancer screening is recommended for smokers and those who have quit if you fall in a “high risk” group. Yearly LDCT lung cancer screening may be right for you if:

  • You are 55 to 77 years old
  • You are, or have been, a heavy smoker
  • You are currently smoking or quit within the past 15 years

These factors put you in the “high risk” category—the type of patients who have been proven to benefit from lung cancer screening. It will take more studies to learn if other people besides the ones that meet these criteria also benefit from yearly lung cancer screening.

So, what qualifies as “a heavy smoker”? It means you have a 30 or greater “pack-year” history of smoking.

“Pack-years” is what doctors use to determine how much you have smoked in your life. It is the number that you get when you multiply the number of cigarette packs that you smoke per day times the number of years that you have smoked.

So, that means that you have a “30 pack-year” smoking history if you smoke:

  • 1 pack a day for 30 years, or
  • 2 packs a day for 15 years, or
  • 3 packs a day for 10 years

Of course, if you have smoked that much or more, you definitely should consider lung cancer screening.

Fact #3: LDCT screening is safe and easy

With most medical procedures, there are some risks. But when it comes to LDCT, Dr. Kolansky says the benefits far outweigh the risks.

“LDCT does expose you to some radiation, but it’s about the same amount as you would get from a mammogram,” she says. “It’s a low dose, and it’s very safe.”

And if you’re nervous about tests, Dr. Kolansky says the LDCT screening is easy and painless and only takes a few minutes.

Fact #4: You’re not off the hook if you're a non-smoker

Even if you’re not at a high risk for lung cancer, it’s important to see your doctor for tests, screenings, and guidance.

It’s true that in the United States, 80 to 90% of all lung cancers are linked to smoking, however, it’s possible to get lung cancer without being a smoker.

For example, the CDC says every year, 7,300 people who have never smoked die from being exposed to secondhand smoke—the kind that comes from other people’s cigarettes, pipes, or cigars.

“There are other risk factors besides smoking,” Dr. Kolansky adds. “LDCT screening, to date, has not been recommended for people with other risk factors besides the ones listed above. But if you have a close family history of lung cancer, or have been exposed to substances like radon or asbestos, especially if you smoke, it’s important to talk with your physician about this.”

Fact #5: If you quit smoking more than 15 years ago, you still carry a risk, but you made the right move

“Quitting smoking greatly reduces your risk of getting lung cancer, but it doesn’t erase it,” says Dr. Kolansky.

One study showed that men and women who quit smoking did lower their chances of getting certain types of cancer. However, their odds were never as low as they are for people who have never smoked to begin with.

What about LCDT? Researchers are still studying whether people who quit smoking for at least 15 years ago should receive routine LDCT screenings. At this time, it’s not recommended. If you are a former smoker, you should discuss screening with your doctor.

Fact #6: That vape cigarette you're smoking? It's not necessarily safer

Vape cigarettes (sometimes called e-cigarettes) are battery-powered devices that deliver nicotine into your body, along with other chemicals. While they don’t burn any tobacco leaves, Dr. Kolansky warns against them.
When you smoke e-cigarettes, you’re still exposed to harmful chemicals like nicotine and formaldehyde. They may be a safer, less toxic alternative to conventional cigarettes, but not enough is known yet about the health effects of e-cigarettes.

Also read: "Vaping's Safe!"...Right? 4 Vaping Myths Separated From the Truth

Fact #7: Even if you have lung cancer already, you'll probably do better if you stop smoking

Don’t throw in the towel if you have lung cancer. But throw out the cigarettes.

People who have lung cancer and who do not smoke can have better outcomes,” says Dr. Kolansky. “If you find out you have cancer, you still can—and should—start a smoking cessation program.

Quitting at the same time of diagnosis can:

  • Increase your likelihood of survival
  • Decrease your risk of developing a second cancer
  • Improve your body’s ability to heal from and respond to surgery, chemotherapy, or other treatments
  • Lower your risk of pneumonia or respiratory failure
  • Improve your quality of life
  • Allow you to spend more time at home than in the hospital

Also read: Smoking Cessation Program

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