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.
Q: Who do doctors typically refer for lung cancer screening?
Your doctor will likely refer you for screening if you fall into these categories, recently updated by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF):
- You’re between age 50 and 80 (previously between age 55 and 80).
- You’ve smoked at least 20 pack-years (previously 30 pack-years) of cigarettes (meaning you multiply the number of packs you smoked each day by the amount of time you smoked, so 20 pack-years is one pack-a-day for 20 years or two packs a day for 10 years).
- You are a current smoker or have quit smoking within the past 15 years.
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.”
One note to be aware of: While the USPSTF has updated their screening recommendations, there might be some lag in updates to insurance plans so it’s best to check with your insurance provider for payment options before scheduling a screening.
Q: How effective is the screening?
A: Only a small fraction of those who get screened have cancer — about one in every 300 people. This may sound like a small number, but it’s about the same or better than results from breast and colon cancer screening.
Q: Are there potential risks from screening?
A: There are three main problems that we associate with screening:
- During a scan, a small spot (called a nodule) is sometimes found, but 95% of these are benign little scars in the lungs we would never have known about without screening. This may cause anxiety for people. And, if a nodule looks concerning, it may lead to extra scans and biopsies, or even surgery to remove it — only to find out it’s not cancer.
- Scans emit a low dose of radiation. Screening is annual, so if you get scans repeatedly, it adds up. And, no one really knows how much impact it has on your health over time. There’s a very small risk of getting cancer years down the road because of having repeated scans.
- Another possibility is over diagnosis. This gets a little more complicated because sometimes these cancers progress quite slowly. We may find and treat cancer that might not have killed a person because they may have another illness (such as emphysema or heart disease) that is more immediately life-threatening. They may go through testing and surgery unnecessarily.
Q: Do the benefits of screening typically outweigh the risks?
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 harm 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.
Those who have lung cancer 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%.
Q: How do you decide to get screened or not?
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’re 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.