Lung Cancer Screening: Do You Need It?
A pulmonologist discusses what lung cancer screening entails and who can benefit from it. Plus the pros and cons of this cancer screening.
If you’re at high risk for lung cancer, experts recommend that you get screened yearly. But only a very small number of cancers are found through screening and the process itself poses some risks. So should you still get checked?
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The American Cancer Society, American Lung Association and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force say yes — if you’re older and are (or were) a longtime smoker then you should be screen every year.
Pulmonologist Peter Mazzone, MD, MPH helps us take a closer look at what you need to know about screening.
A: Your doctor will likely refer you for screening if you fall into these categories:
It’s also important that you’re healthy enough to benefit from finding and treating early-stage lung cancer.
“If someone comes to us in a wheelchair already wearing oxygen and couldn’t tolerate treatment, they typically aren’t eligible for screening,” says Dr. Mazzone. “However, there are nearly 9 million Americans who are at high risk and should receive screening.”
A: Only a small fraction of those who get screened have cancer — about one in every 300 patients. This may sound like a small number, but it’s about the same or better than results from breast and colon cancer screening.
A: There are three main problems that we associate with screening:
A: The only reason we offer screenings is because the benefits still outweigh the harm in the right person. And, in a high-quality program, we can minimize the harms and manage the findings effectively.
Lung cancer doesn’t have symptoms in its early stages. So without screening, most people come in when it’s spread too far and there is no longer a good chance of curing it.
Lung cancer patients have about an 80% chance of being alive five years later if we diagnose and treat them when their cancer is at Stage 1. However, only about 16% of people with lung cancer are diagnosed before the cancer spreads. For tumors that have spread, the five-year survival rate is only about 4%.
A: Cleveland Clinic mandates a counseling and shared decision-making visit before doing a scan. During this appointment we talk to patients about the benefits and potential harm so we can personalize their decision.
People need to understand their specific chances of getting lung cancer as well as the potential benefits of screening. They need to understand the possible harms so they can make an informed decision.
Many people value the potential benefit of screening so much that they are happy to accept them to avoid the potential harms. Others may have a different perspective. And, because it’s an annual test, we should revisit this information every year.
Your doctor can help you decide whether screening for lung cancer is right for you.