Have you been screened for lung cancer?


Lung cancer kills more men and women than any other type of cancer. Detection of this disease in its early stages can lead to better survival. Screening, for those who qualify, is free, quick and easy via low-dose computed tomography (CT).

So why are so few Americans screened for lung cancer?

A 2016 report showed that five years after the government and private insurers began covering the cost of screening, less than 2 percent of eligible patients underwent CT screening.

In another study from 2019, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the researchers found that in the 10 states they analyzed, only 14% of qualified people had been screened in the past year.

“It’s one thing to have the screening tools at your disposal, but unless you’re initiated, what’s the point? »Said Michael Wert, MD, a pulmonary intensive care physician at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center.

RELATED: Understanding the signs and symptoms of lung cancer

Who is eligible for lung cancer screening?

The United States Task Force on Preventive Services (USPSTF) recently updated its guidelines to increase the number of people eligible for annual low-dose CT scans.

The new recommendations for annual screening include adults aged 50 to 80 who have a 20-pack-year history of smoking and currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years.

A “pack-year” means that you have smoked one pack of cigarettes per day for one year, or the equivalent.

If you are unsure whether you meet the screening criteria, the American Lung Association (ALA) offers an online eligibility form quiz it could provide more clarity.

RELATED: Why do “never-smokers” get lung cancer?

Benefits of CT screening

A CT scan is a special type of exam that uses X-rays to create detailed images of structures inside your body. It can reveal very small nodules in the lungs and is particularly useful for diagnosing lung cancer at its earliest and most treatable stage.

Research shows that only about 16 percent lung cancers are diagnosed early, when the five-year survival rate reaches 90 percent. Lung cancer becomes much less curable when diagnosed at a later stage.

A benchmark 2011 study funded by the National Cancer Institute found that patients screened with low-dose CT scans were at least 20 percent less likely to die from lung cancer.

In another study from 2020, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers found a significant reduction in lung cancer death rates in high-risk people who underwent CT scans.

The test is quick, painless, and requires little preparation.

“It’s a fairly easy screening process, unlike preparing for a colonoscopy, which is a much more uncomfortable procedure,” says Dr. Wert. “You come in and talk to your provider, then get the lung scan. The whole process takes 10 minutes. You get the results the same day or the next day.

If you are eligible for an annual CT screening test, your insurance company is required to cover the cost of the exam.

RELATED: 5 early signs of lung cancer

Why are lung cancer screening rates so low?

Experts aren’t sure exactly why qualified people don’t get screened for lung cancer.

Lack of awareness is one possible reason why fewer people have CT scans for lung cancer. “For some reason, screening for lung cancer is not as ingrained in the minds of doctors and patients as the need for a colonoscopy or a smear or that sort of thing,” says Wert.

In fact, between 60 and 80 percent of people eligible for breast, cervical or colon screening have them – and these tests are considered much more unpleasant.

Some patients may also worry about receiving bad news or getting a false positive result which can lead to unnecessary procedures.

Access to health facilities or transport can be a barrier for some, especially for people living in rural areas.

Additionally, some experts believe there is a stigma associated with lung cancer screening that smokers may want to avoid.

RELATED: When ‘Just a Cough’ Is Actually Stage IV Lung Cancer

How to talk to your doctor about lung cancer screening

If you’re concerned about your risk and have a history of smoking, don’t wait for symptoms to bring it up with your doctor. Lung cancer only causes symptoms in the later stages, and your best chance of survival, as with all cancers, is to catch it and get it treated early. Your doctor can help you determine if you are eligible for a test and if you might benefit from it.

Your doctor can also provide comments on:

  • The advantages and disadvantages of having a scan
  • Where to get your scan
  • How to prepare for your exam
  • What your results might mean
  • The cost (if not covered)

“What I’m telling people is if you even think you might be a candidate for screening, even if you’re not sure, the worst thing that happens is you contact your provider, and they say that you don’t qualify, ”says Wert.

It is especially important to talk to your doctor if you are a heavy smoker, have a strong family history of lung cancer, or have other risk factors.

Here are some questions you may want to ask your doctor:

  • What is my risk for lung cancer?
  • Do you recommend that I get screened for lung cancer? Why?
  • How often should I get tested?
  • How to prepare for a lung cancer screening?
  • Are there any risks or side effects associated with screening?
  • How long will it take to get my results?
  • If the test shows that I have cancer, what will happen next?
  • What can I do to reduce my risk of lung cancer?

American Lung Association offers free medical conversation guide that you can bring with you on your visit. “Early detection is essential,” says Wert. “It beats the alternative.”

RELATED: New Hope for Previously ‘Non-Drug’ Non-Cellular Lung Cancer

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