Have you put off getting a lung cancer screening or other routine screenings out of fear of diagnosis? But getting screened early can significantly improve your chances of survival if doctors find something abnormal. This is especially true in the case of lung cancer; early detection can save your life.
You can’t afford to wait for lung cancer symptoms to appear. A lung cancer screening is an imaging test used to search for and identify signs of cancer in your lungs before symptoms appear. If you delay testing until you experience signs of lung cancer—persistent coughing, shortness of breath, or coughing up blood—you risk allowing cancer to progress to a later stage. Often, if symptoms are present, the cancer has already started spreading. Once lung cancer begins to grow in size or spread, it is much harder to treat.
Early detection increases your survival rate. If you catch lung cancer before symptoms appear, you have more treatment options and chances for a cure. In fact, people who are diagnosed with early-stage lung cancer experience a 27 percent to 61 percent five-year survival rate, depending on the type of lung cancer. In contrast, once lung cancer has spread to both lungs or surrounding organs in later stages, the five-year survival rate drops to 3 percent to 6 percent, according to the American Cancer Society.
How can lung cancer be detected early? Medical advances in x-ray technology make it easier to find cancer in its earliest stages, when it’s most curable. Doctors use a low-dose computed tomography scan, or low-dose CT scan, to get a detailed look at your lungs and nearby organs. The x-rays create a 2D image of your lungs, allowing your doctor to find and track tiny spots called nodules, which can grow into cancer.
During a low-dose CT scan, you’ll lay down on a table that passes through a CT machine, similar to a large metal donut. The entire screening takes between 15 to 30 minutes, and it’s completely painless. Your doctors can follow abnormalities to ensure they doesn’t develop into cancer. If your doctor notices a change in size, they may recommend further evaluation to ensure it’s not cancerous.
Is LDCT radiation exposure harmful? Low-dose CT scans use significantly less radiation than traditional CT scans. In fact, the amount of radiation exposure in a low-dose CT scan is less than half of the standard radiation you’ll unknowingly receive within one year in the United States just going about daily life. The benefits of early detection outweigh potential risks associated with the minimal amount of radiation exposure.
Smoking is the most common cause of lung cancer. The number one cause of lung cancer is smoking, which is why you can greatly reduce your risk of lung cancer if you quit. Even if you’ve tried to quit before, it’s never too late to try again. Talk with your doctor about smoking cessation resources that may help you kick the habit and minimize your risk of lung cancer.
While 85 percent to 90 percent of all lung cancer cases are attributed to smoking, environmental factors also can increase your risk of developing lung cancer. Exposure to high radon levels in old homes or asbestos levels in certain work environments, for example, can pose a threat to your lung health.
Unlike other types of cancer, lung cancer is not genetic. That means even if a family member has it, you’re not genetically prone to developing the disease. But if a family member smokes in close proximity to you on a regular basis, your risk of developing lung cancer increases because you are exposed to secondhand smoke.
When is the best time to get screened for lung cancer? If you smoke, the best time to get screened for lung cancer is before symptoms appear. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services guidelines recommend screening for individuals who:
- Are between the ages of 55 and 75 years old
- Have no signs or symptoms
- Have a a history of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for 30 years, or 2 packs of cigarettes a day for 15 years
- Currently smoke or quit within the past 15 years
Even if nothing is found during your low-dose CT scan, it’s important to continue getting screened every year. If something suspicious is found, your care team may repeat the screening in three to six months to see if a nodule is growing and act accordingly.
In order to get the clearest results during your low-dose CT scan, it’s important to be clear of any respiratory infections, such as pneumonia or COVID-19. Respiratory infections can result in shortness of breath or a persistent cough, which are also signs of lung cancer. Seek medical care if you are having trouble breathing or a cough that won’t go away so your doctor can treat any infections before you get screened for lung cancer.
The sooner lung cancer is detected, the better. If you meet eligibility for lung cancer screening, don’t delay. A low-dose CT scan may save your life by detecting early signs of cancer. When found early, lung cancer treatment is easier and more effective, giving you the best chance for survival and more time with those you love.