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Can a lung cancer screening save your life?

October 10, 2023 Cancer

Lung cancer claims more lives each year than breast, prostate and colon cancer combined. Unfortunately, it's also a cancer that is rarely detected early.

"By the time people begin to experience the symptoms of lung cancer — a raspy or bloody cough, shortness of breath, recurrent pneumonia and bronchitis, chest pain — it's often when the disease has reached advanced stages. This makes it more difficult to treat," explains Michael J. Walker, MD thoracic surgeon at Main Line Health.

Low-dose CT scan can reduce lung cancer deaths

Unlike traditional chest X-rays, which are limited in their ability to detect a tumor in its earliest stage, a low-dose computed tomography (CT) scan can detect lung tumors and abnormalities when they are as small as a grain of rice. It does this by taking dozens of X-ray images of the lungs from several different angles — far more than a traditional chest X-ray.

"A CT scan provides a much more comprehensive view of your lungs than traditional chest X-rays, which only detect tumors when they've grown to be about the size of a small coin," says Dr. Walker. As a result, lung cancer can be detected earlier and treated sooner. Low-dose CT scans can lower the risk of death from lung cancer by 20% in high-risk patients. It's a painless, non-invasive scan, which only takes about 20 seconds and doesn't require bloodwork or an IV.

Who is considered at high risk for lung cancer?

People who are smokers or who have a history of smoking are at a higher risk for lung cancer than people who have never smoked. But, even within these groups, some people are at a higher risk for lung cancer than others. This includes people who:

  • Are between 50 and 80 years old
  • Smoked at least one pack per day for 20 years

If you fall into any of these categories, you may be eligible for a low-dose CT scan. Other factors, like your history of lung cancer and disease, may also make you more eligible to receive this low-dose CT scan. If you are currently a smoker or you have a history of smoking, ask your doctor whether or not this scan might be right for you. You may qualify for an annual screening.

"Current and former smokers should feel comfortable speaking honestly with their health care providers,” Dr. Walker says. “There is no judgment here. Our sole focus is on finding lung cancer early, when it’s most treatable."

The screening is paid for by many insurances, including Medicare and Medicaid. Be sure to check with your own insurance company to determine whether you'll have any out-of-pocket expenses. In most cases, the fees — if any — will be small.

Recognizing the signs and symptoms of lung cancer

While a CT scan remains the most effective way to detect and diagnose lung cancer early, it's still important to recognize symptoms that may be early indicators of lung cancer. These symptoms include:

Symptoms like these should prompt a visit to your doctor — especially if you have a history of smoking or exposure to carcinogens.

Lung cancer kills about 130,000 Americans every year and is often only discovered in the later stages, when it is difficult to treat. Early detection, before it spreads to other areas of the body, makes it easier to treat and can save your life. —Dr. Michael J. Walker

Need more information about low-dose CT lung cancer screening?

The experts with the Main Line Health Lung Cancer Program are your partners in preventing, diagnosing and treating all stages of lung cancer. We offer lung cancer screenings at eight convenient locations in the Philadelphia suburbs. Call 484.565.LUNG (5864) and a nurse navigator will help schedule your screening, including getting a prescription from your primary care doctor.

Next steps:

Learn more about Michael J. Walker, MD
Learn more about Main Line Health Lung Cancer Screening
Learn more about the Main Line Health Lung Cancer Program
Learn about the SmokeFREE smoking cessation program