Screening for Lung Cancer

CT scanScreening is looking for cancer before a person has any symptoms. This can help find cancer at an early stage when it may be easier to treat. Lung cancer may have spread by the time a person has symptoms. One reason lung cancer is so serious is because it usually is not found until it has spread and is more difficult to treat. Screening may provide new hope for early detection and treatment of lung cancer. Scientists study screening tests to find those with the fewest risks and most benefits. They look at results over time to see if finding the cancer early decreases a person's chance of dying from the disease. Three screening tests have been studied to see if they decrease the risk of dying from lung cancer.

  • Chest x-ray:A plain x-ray of your chest. An x-ray of the organs and bones inside the chest. Chest x-ray is no longer recommended for screening.
  • Sputum cytology:A sample of mucus you cough up from the lungs (called sputum or phlegm) is looked at under a microscope to see if cancer cells are present. Sputum cytology is a procedure in which a sample of sputum (mucus that is coughed up from the lungs) is viewed under a microscope to check for cancer cells
  • Low-dose spiral CT scan:A CT (or CAT) scan is a special kind of x-ray that takes many pictures as you lie on a table that slides in and out of the machine. A computer then combines these pictures into a detailed picture of a slice of your body. A procedure that uses low-dose radiation to make a series of very detailed pictures of areas inside the body.

Of these tests, studies showed that only low-dose spiral CT scan reduced the risk of dying from lung cancer in high-risk populations. Chest x-ray and sputum cytology are two screening tests that have been used to check for signs of lung cancer but do not decrease the risk of dying from lung cancer.

Considering screening for lung cancer can bring up a variety of questions. The American Lung Association has released new guidelines to help physicians, their patients and the public in their discussions about lung cancer screening.

Early detection of lung cancer can increase survival rates. Call the Lung Helpline at 1-800-LUNGUSA or talk to your doctor about lung cancer screening.