If you’re at risk, annual lung cancer screenings could save your life

November 4, 2015 | by Veronique de Turenne

When it comes to lifesaving messages, it doesn’t get much simpler than this: If you’re a smoker, a former smoker or possess these risk factors, an annual lung cancer screening could be the difference between life and death.

“Lung cancer is by far the most common cancer killer among both men and women,” said Dan Raz, M.D., co-director of City of Hope's Lung Cancer and Thoracic Oncology Program. “But by the time there are symptoms, most of those lung cancers are quite advanced and too often they cannot be cured.”

Raz has long been a proponent of regular lung cancer screening for those who are at risk—adults between the ages of 55 and 80 who have smoked a pack per day for 30 years and still smoke, as well as those who have quit within the past 15 years.

“The recommendation by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force is that everyone who falls into that at-risk category should get screened for lung cancer every year,” Raz said. “But in fact, a small minority of people turn out to be actually eligible under their insurance plans.”

Although Medicare, which covers adults 65 and older, has made those who meet these criteria eligible for annual lung cancer screenings, most insurance companies have not. That means that at-risk individuals under 65 must either pay out-of-pocket for a yearly screening, or gamble and go without any screenings until Medicare coverage kicks in.

“If long-term smokers got CT screenings, the lives saved would be comparable to the success rates of screenings that are much more common, such as for breast cancer or cervical cancer,” Raz said.

Statistics tell the story. According to the National Cancer Institute, 221,000 men and women will be diagnosed with lung cancer in 2015. Of those, just 17 percent will survive for five years. An estimated 158,000 people will die of lung cancer in 2015, which is 25 percent of all cancer deaths.

In addition to smoking, those who have been exposed to asbestos, radon and secondhand smoke face an increased risk of lung cancer. A family history of cancer is also a risk factor, Raz said. Find out other risk factors here.

Ironically, the low-dose computed tomography (CT) scan, in which an X-ray machine scans the body with a low dose of radiation to create a detailed image of a patient’s lungs, is among the simplest of all cancer screenings.

“A CT scan is so easy – no dyes, no invasive procedures,” Raz said. “You don’t even have to get undressed – you just hold your breath for an instant and get a low dose of radiation.”

Potential drawbacks include a slight chance of a false positive or a false negative result, as well as risks inherent in the use of radiation. However, the benefits far outweigh the negatives, Raz said.

Women in particular should be aware of the importance of lung cancer screenings.

“Everyone knows about the importance of mammography and breast cancer detection but according to a recent survey, only 1 percent of women identified lung cancer as a top killer,” Raz said. “At City of Hope, we are working hard to increase awareness, and to improve early detection in women and men who are at risk of the disease.”

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Learn more about our lung cancer treatment and research and our unique patient experience. If you have been diagnosed with lung cancer or are looking for a second opinion consultation about your treatment, request an appointment online or contact us at 800-826-HOPE. Please visit Making Your First Appointment for more information.

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