Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States, among both men and women. Lung cancer claims more lives each year than colon, prostate, ovarian and breast cancers combined. For this reason, researchers have been looking for ways to screen for lung cancer.
Cancer screening is a way in which doctors check the lungs for early signs of cancer in people who have no symptoms of the disease. The goal of lung cancer screening is to find cancer early, before it has a chance to grow, spread or cause other problems.
For some time it was not clear if screening for lung cancer was effective. However, there is new data that using a low-dose CT scan, a scan that uses much less radiation than a normal CT scan, appears to be helpful as a screening tool for some people who might be at high risk of developing lung cancer. One large study found those high-risk individuals who were screened with low-dose CT scans were less likely to die of lung cancer than those who were screened with standard x-rays.
Of course the best way to lower your chances of getting or dying from lung cancer is to quit smoking. It does not matter how much or how long one has smoked. Quitting now reduces the chance not only of developing lung problems but also heart disease, strokes and many other forms of cancer.
Is lung cancer screening right for you? You need to consider the pros and cons. The main benefit of screening is that it helps doctors to find cancer early, when it should be easier to treat. This might lower your chances of dying from lung cancer.
However, this is not always straightforward and there are potential drawbacks to being screened. Low-dose CT scans sometimes result in "false positives," meaning they suggest you might have cancer when you do not. This can lead to unneeded worry and to more tests.
For example, you may need a follow-up full dose CT scan, with greater radiation exposure. You may also require a lung biopsy, a procedure to remove a small sample of tissue. This procedure can be painful and lead to problems, such as bleeding or a collapsed lung.
Like all x-rays, CT scans expose you to some radiation. Although the radiation dose from the first screening CT scan is low, you would need to have a scan every year and that exposure will add up. Plus, if you have had an abnormal result, you could end up having a full dose CT scan.
Smoking, particularly cigarettes, is by far the main contributor to lung cancer. Cigarette smoke contains over 60 known carcinogens (cancer-causing substances) and in addition nicotine appears to depress the immune response to cancerous growth. As such, individuals in the following 2 groups are candidates for lung cancer screening:
Group 1: Age 55-74 years old; currently smoking or have quit within the past 15 years; have smoked at least a pack of cigarettes a day for 30+ years.
Group 2: Age 55-74 years old; have smoked at least a pack of cigarettes a day for 20+ years; have one additional lung cancer risk factor not to include secondhand smoke exposure, such as radon or asbestos exposure or a family history of lung cancer.
If you are interested in being screened for lung cancer, HealthAlliance Hospital offers this service at a lower cost to patients as insurance companies currently may not cover this. You should speak with your primary care physician or make an appointment with a pulmonary specialist.
Oren Schaefer, M.D., can be reached at: Mass Lung & Allergy, Staff Physician at HealthAlliance Hospital, 100 Hospital Rd, Suite 2A, 978-466-2692. Please contact your physician if you are experiencing any health concerns. If you are looking for a doctor, please call our physician referral line at 888-840-DOCS (3627). If you would like to submit a health topic, please email firstname.lastname@example.org