Can Lung Cancer Be Found Early?

Screening is the use of tests or exams to find a disease in people who don’t have symptoms. 

Regular chest x-rays have been studied as a screening test for people at higher risk for lung cancer, but they haven't been shown to help most people live longer, and therefore they aren't recommended for lung cancer screening.

In recent years, a test known as a low-dose CT (LDCT) scan has been studied in people at higher risk of getting lung cancer (mainly because they smoke or used to smoke). LDCT scans can help find abnormal areas in the lungs that may be cancer. Research has shown that unlike chest x-rays, yearly LDCT scans to screen people at higher risk of lung cancer can save lives. For these people, getting yearly LDCT scans before symptoms start helps lower the risk of dying from lung cancer.

Reasons to screen for lung cancer in people at higher risk

In the United States, lung cancer is the second most common cancer in both men and women. It’s also the leading cause of death from cancer.

If lung cancer is found at an earlier stage, when it is small and before it has spread, it is more likely to be treated successfully.

Lung cancer screening is recommended for certain people who smoke or used to smoke, but who don't have any signs or symptoms. If a person has lung cancer but doesn't have any symptoms, this usually means there's a chance to detect the disease early.

Usually symptoms of lung cancer don't appear until the disease is already at an advanced stage. Even when lung cancer does cause symptoms, many people may mistake them for other problems, such as an infection or long-term effects from smoking. This may delay the diagnosis. If you have symptoms that could be from lung cancer, see your doctor right away. (People who already have symptoms that might be from lung cancer may need tests such as CT scans to find the cause, which in some cases may be cancer. But this kind of testing is for diagnosis and is not the same as screening.)

American Cancer Society lung cancer screening guideline

The most recent version of the American Cancer Society (ACS) lung cancer screening guideline (from 2018) is being taken down while we review new scientific evidence to be included in the next update. While this important update is being completed, the ACS advises that health care providers, and people at increased risk for lung cancer, follow the recently updated recommendations for annual lung cancer screening from the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), or the American College of Chest Physicians. These organizations recommend yearly lung cancer screening with LDCT scans for people who:

  • Are 50 to 80 years old and in fairly good health,
    and
  • Currently smoke or have quit in the past 15 years,
    and
  • Have at least a 20 pack-year smoking history. (This is the number of packs of cigarettes per day multiplied by the number of years smoked. For example, someone who smoked 2 packs a day for 10 years [2 x 10 = 20] has 20 pack-years of smoking, as does a person who smoked 1 pack a day for 20 years [1 x 20 = 20].)

In addition, it's important that people who are going to be screened:

  • Receive counseling to quit smoking if they currently smoke,
    and
  • Have been told by their doctor about the possible benefits, limits, and harms of screening with LDCT scans,
    and
  • Can go to a center that has experience in lung cancer screening and treatment.

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in many elective procedures being put on hold, and this has led to a substantial decline in cancer screening. Health care facilities are providing cancer screening during the pandemic with many safety precautions in place. Learn how you can talk to your doctor and what steps you can take to plan, schedule, and get your regular cancer screenings in Cancer Screening During the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Benefits and possible risks of lung cancer screening

The main benefit of screening is a lower chance of dying from lung cancer, which accounts for many deaths in people who currently smoke or formerly smoked.

Still, it’s important to be aware that, as with any type of screening, not everyone who gets screened will benefit. Screening with LDCT will not find all lung cancers, not all of the cancers that are found will be found early, and some people with lung cancer found by screening will still die from that cancer.

LDCT scans can also find things that turn out not to be cancer, but that still have to be checked out with more tests to know what they are. You might need more CT scans, or less often, invasive tests such as a lung biopsy, in which a piece of lung tissue is removed with a needle or during surgery. These tests might rarely lead to serious complications.

LDCTs also expose people to a small amount of radiation with each test. It is less than the dose from a standard CT, but it is more than the dose from a chest x-ray. Some people who are screened may end up needing further CT scans, which means more radiation exposure.

Other things to consider if you're thinking about screening

If you are at higher risk for lung cancer, your doctor can explain your risk and how lung cancer screening might apply to you. Your doctor can also talk with you about what happens during screening and the best places to get the yearly screening test. Lung cancer screening is covered by Medicare and by many private health insurance plans. Your health care team can help you find out if your insurance will provide coverage.

Screening should only be done at facilities that have the right type of CT scanner and that have experience in LDCT scans for lung cancer screening. The facility should also have a team of specialists that can give patients the appropriate care and follow-up if there are abnormal results on the scans. You might not have the right kind of facility nearby, so you may need to travel some distance to be screened.

If you smoke, you should get counseling about stopping. You should be told about your risk of lung cancer and referred to a smoking cessation program. Screening is not a good alternative to stopping smoking. By quitting, people who smoke can lower their risk of getting and dying from lung cancer. For help quitting, see How To Quit Smoking and Smokeless Tobacco or call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345.

What does “in fairly good health” mean?

Screening is meant to find cancer in people who do not have symptoms of the disease.

To get the most benefit from screening, people need to be in fairly good health. For example, they need to be able to have surgery and other treatments to try to cure lung cancer if it is found. People who have other major health issues that could keep them from having lung surgery might not be good candidates for lung cancer screening. The same is true for people who might have a shortened life expectancy because they already have other serious medical conditions. These people might not benefit enough from screening for it to be worth the risks.

It's important to talk to your doctor about all your health issues when deciding if lung cancer screening is right for you.

If something abnormal is found during screening

Sometimes screening tests will show something abnormal in the lungs or nearby areas that might be cancer. Most of these abnormal findings will turn out not to be cancer, but more CT scans or other tests will be needed to be sure. Some of these tests are described in Tests for Lung Cancer.

CT scans of the lungs can also sometimes show problems in other organs near the lungs. Your doctor will discuss any such findings with you if they are found.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Aberle DR, Adams AM, Berg CD, et al; National Lung Screening Trial Research Team. Reduced lung-cancer mortality with low-dose computed tomographic screening. N Engl J Med. 2011;365(5):395-409.

American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). Lung Cancer Screening, Adult. Accessed at https://www.aafp.org/family-physician/patient-care/clinical-recommendations/all-clinical-recommendations/lung-cancer.html on August 27, 2021.

de Koning HJ, van der Aalst CM, de Jong PA, et al. Reduced lung-cancer mortality with volume CT screening in a randomized trial. N Engl J Med. 2020;382(6):503-513.

Mazzone PJ, Silvestri GA, Patel S, et al. Screening for lung cancer: CHEST guideline and expert panel report. Chest. 2018,153(4):954-985.

National Cancer Institute. Physician Data Query (PDQ). Patient Version. Lung Cancer Screening. 2019. Accessed at https://www.cancer.gov/types/lung/patient/lung-screening-pdq on August 27, 2021.

Smith RA, Andrews KS, Brooks D, et al. Cancer screening in the United States, 2018: A review of current American Cancer Society guidelines and current issues in cancer screening. CA Cancer J Clin. 2018 Jul;68(4):297-316.

US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). Lung Cancer: Screening.  Accessed at https://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/recommendation/lung-cancer-screening on August 27, 2021.

Wender R, Fontham E, Barrera E, et al. American Cancer Society lung cancer screening guidelines. CA Cancer J Clin. 2013;63:106–117.

References

Aberle DR, Adams AM, Berg CD, et al; National Lung Screening Trial Research Team. Reduced lung-cancer mortality with low-dose computed tomographic screening. N Engl J Med. 2011;365(5):395-409.

American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). Lung Cancer Screening, Adult. Accessed at https://www.aafp.org/family-physician/patient-care/clinical-recommendations/all-clinical-recommendations/lung-cancer.html on August 27, 2021.

de Koning HJ, van der Aalst CM, de Jong PA, et al. Reduced lung-cancer mortality with volume CT screening in a randomized trial. N Engl J Med. 2020;382(6):503-513.

Mazzone PJ, Silvestri GA, Patel S, et al. Screening for lung cancer: CHEST guideline and expert panel report. Chest. 2018,153(4):954-985.

National Cancer Institute. Physician Data Query (PDQ). Patient Version. Lung Cancer Screening. 2019. Accessed at https://www.cancer.gov/types/lung/patient/lung-screening-pdq on August 27, 2021.

Smith RA, Andrews KS, Brooks D, et al. Cancer screening in the United States, 2018: A review of current American Cancer Society guidelines and current issues in cancer screening. CA Cancer J Clin. 2018 Jul;68(4):297-316.

US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). Lung Cancer: Screening.  Accessed at https://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/recommendation/lung-cancer-screening on August 27, 2021.

Wender R, Fontham E, Barrera E, et al. American Cancer Society lung cancer screening guidelines. CA Cancer J Clin. 2013;63:106–117.

Last Revised: August 27, 2021

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