Lung cancer screenings can be a valuable tool for people who are at a higher risk for developing lung cancer. These screenings can help find lung cancer in the early stages before it causes noticeable symptoms and becomes harder to treat.

It’s estimated that an average of 641 people are diagnosed with lung cancer in the United States every day.

In the United States, the 5-year survival rate for lung cancer is 17.7 percent. However, if it’s caught before it spreads to other parts of the body, the survival rate is as high as 55 percent.

Not everybody needs or should get regular screenings. If you’re not at a high risk for lung cancer, screenings may do more harm than good.

In this article, we’ll look at who should be screened and how often. We’ll also highlight the specific risk factors that could increase your risk for lung cancer.

Lung cancer screening isn’t as common or routine as other screening tests like mammograms for breast cancer or colonoscopies for colon cancer.

Researchers have been debating since the 1960s about the best way to implement lung cancer screenings.

During the 1960s and 1970s, a few early studies found no benefit in screening people for lung cancer with chest X-rays. A comprehensive 2011 study with 154,901 participants also found no benefit for most individuals.

However, researchers did find that screening led to a lower number of cancer deaths in heavy smokers and people with a history of heavy smoking.

The researchers also found that screening with a machine called a low-dose CT scan led to a 20 percent reduction in cancer deaths compared to screening with an X-ray.

USPSTF screening recommendation

The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends yearly lung cancer screening with a low-dose CT scan for people:

  • who are between the ages of 50 and 80
  • and have a history of heavy smoking
  • and currently smoke or have quit within 15 years
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Heavy smoking is defined as having at least a 20-pack-year smoking history.

A pack-year means you smoke an average of one pack a day for 1 year. For example, a 20-pack-year would be smoking one pack a day for 20 years.

American Cancer Society screening recommendation

The American Cancer Society’s guidelines are similar to those of the USPSTF, except they recommend screening for people ages 55 to 74 instead of 50 to 80.

In addition, you need to:

  • be in fairly good health
  • have received smoking cessation counseling if you currently smoke
  • have been informed about the benefits, limitations, and harms of low-dose CT scans
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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the only recommended screening test for lung cancer is with a low-dose CT scan.

During your screening, you’ll lie on a table that slides in and out of the low-dose CT scanner. The scanner uses a special type of X-ray to capture many images of your lungs.

A computer inside the scanner will then pull these images together to create a detailed image of your lungs.

The procedure is quick and painless and only takes a couple of minutes.

If your scan shows some type of abnormality, your doctor will likely want to do further tests to determine whether you have lung cancer.

These tests may include a PET scan or a biopsy. Both of these tests can give your doctor more information about the abnormal cells and whether they’re cancerous.

Even if your screening looks normal, you’ll need to repeat the screening each year if you’re in a high-risk category for lung cancer.

Getting regular lung cancer screenings can increase the chance of detecting lung cancer in the early stages. The odds of surviving from lung cancer improve greatly if you catch it before it spreads from where it originated in your lungs.

Lung cancer screenings may also help detect other issues with your lungs that may not be easy to diagnose in other ways.

Lung cancer screening does have some potential risks. For instance:

  • Lung cancer screening tests can provide a false-positive. A false-positive means that the test determines you have cancer when you don’t. This can result in unnecessary tests and surgeries that may have additional risks.
  • The screening test may over-diagnose cancer. This means that instances of cancer may be detected that potentially wouldn’t have become a problem. If the cancer is slow-growing or you have other serious health conditions, a lung cancer diagnosis may lead to unnecessary treatment that could cause harm.
  • Lung cancer screening exposes your body to radiation. Repeated exposure to radiation from a low-dose CT scanner may increase your risk for lung cancer.

Lung cancer typically doesn’t have noticeable symptoms in the early stages. In fact, only about 16 percent of people with lung cancer get diagnosed before it spreads to other tissues.

If lung cancer does produce symptoms in the early stages, these symptoms may include:

If you haven’t smoked within the last 15 years and you’re not between the ages of 55 to 80, you likely don’t need to be screened for lung cancer.

The CDC also recommends avoiding lung cancer screening for people who:

  • are over the age of 81
  • have some other serious life threatening health condition that may make it difficult for them to undergo surgery for lung cancer

If you have any questions about whether lung cancer screening is right for you, be sure to ask your doctor for their advice.

Lung cancer screening is a valuable tool that can help detect lung cancer in the early stages when it’s easiest to treat. People who are at a high risk for lung cancer should get screened once per year.

If you’re not at a high risk for developing lung cancer, regular screenings are generally not recommended, as they may do more harm than good.

If you’re unsure whether you should get screened, your doctor can help you decide whether lung cancer screening is right for you.