Lung screening can save your life

September 26, 2017

Recent data supports that lung screening can detect early stage lung cancers before they become incurable. Find out if you’re a candidate for screening.

Why screening is so important.

Usually symptoms of lung cancer don’t appear until the disease is already at an advanced non-curable stage. However, in 2011 the New England Journal of Medicine published results from the National Lung Screening Trial that found that screening decreased lung-specific cancer mortality by 20 percent among high-risk patients. Based on that data and a recommendation by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, private insurance providers, as well as Medicare, will now cover the cost of lung screening.

Eligibility requirements for screening.

Screening is for high-risk patients who are aged 55 to 77, have a 30-pack year history of smoking (a pack a day for 30 years or two packs a day for 15), and currently smoke or have quit within the last 15 years. Patients must also be relatively healthy enough to undergo treatment that might include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or a combination thereof.

If you meet these criteria, it’s extremely important to get screened, especially if you’re asymptomatic. Once symptoms appear, the cancer has likely progressed to stage III or stage IV and is potentially incurable.

Risks of screening.

The only recommended lung screening method is low-dose computed tomography, or LDCT. This emits a low dose of radiation, so there is a small risk involved. However, if you are an asymptomatic heavy smoker, the risk of not getting screened (and being diagnosed with lung cancer at a later stage) will likely outweigh the risk of radiation exposure from the testing.

Another risk is a false sense of security if the test comes back negative. Screening is not a one-and-done. Just like mammography, the first test is a baseline from which to compare future results. You should be screened every year until you turn 78 or have not smoked in more than 15 years.

Finally, the risk of over-diagnosis could result in treatment that’s not needed. To avoid this, get screened at an institution, such as IU Health, that offers a multi-disciplinary approach. Our lung cancer program includes radiologists who specialize in chest LDCT only and who work as a team with thoracic surgeons, pulmonologists, and other lung specialists.

If you’re a heavy smoker, be proactive.

Of course, the best medical advice is to quit smoking. But lung screening can catch cancer at a much earlier stage than at the point symptoms start to appear.

I encourage you to speak with either me or your primary care provider about the benefits and risks of lung cancer screening.

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