As with other cancer types, detecting lung cancer early increases both the chance of survival and the number of treatment options available to patients. The US Preventive Services Task Force has issued new guidelines outlining criteria for lung cancer screening. Most importantly, these guidelines are an effort to catch as many lung cancer cases as possible in an early stage.
What are the benefits of lung cancer screening?
Because many lung cancer patients don’t have any symptoms associated with lung cancer before they are diagnosed, many diagnoses occur after the cancer has already spread outside of the lung. The stage the cancer is at the time of diagnosis determines the treatment options available to the patient.
Staging is the process of defining the extent of the disease. Staging is essential in determining not only the first treatment but the treatment plan altogether.
According to the National Cancer Institute, the definition of stages of lung cancer are:
Stage 1: The lung cancer is found only in the part of the body where it started, ie the lung. This is called localized disease.
Stages 2-4: The cancer has spread to one or more different parts of the body. This is called regional or distant or advanced disease.
The earlier lung cancer is caught, the better chance the lung cancer patient has of surviving 5 or more years after their diagnosis. Unfortunately, less than 18 out of every 100 lung cancer cases are diagnosed before the cancer has spread. Above all, for those who are diagnosed at the local stage, the chance of surviving 5 years or more after diagnosis is nearly 60 out of 100.
By comparison, the overall 5-year survival rate for lung cancer is about 22 out of every 100 lung cancer patients. Additionally, for those whose lung cancer is not detected until the lung cancer has metastasized, that number is only 6 out of every 100.
What tests are used for detecting lung cancer at an early stage?
Lung cancer screening allows doctors to test a patient for the disease before they develop symptoms.
The recommended test to screen for lung cancer is a low-dose computed tomography (also called a low-dose CT scan, or LDCT). During a low-dose CT scan, the patient lies on a table. Then an X-Ray machine uses a very low dose of radiation to make a detailed image of the lungs. This type of scan takes only a few minutes and it is not painful.
Who should be screened for lung cancer?
The US Preventive Services Task Force recommends annual lung cancer scans for people who:
- Have a 20 pack-year or more smoking history, and
- Smoke now or have quit within the past 15 years, and
- Are between 50 and 80 years old.
Insurance companies and Medicare follow the US Preventive Services Task Force guidelines and cover the costs for lung cancer screening for people who meet the above criteria.
Learn more about detecting lung cancer.
What other tests for lung cancer are possible in the future?
There are studies looking at using nasal swabs or blood tests to detect lung cancer that are showing some promise and could be part of an annual physical in the future.
Beyond CT scans, are there ways to diagnose lung cancer in early stage?
LCFA co-founder David Sturges discusses with M&C Communications’ Diane Mulligan the new and less invasive diagnostic tools being studied.