Questions and Answers About Lung Cancer Screening
Screening is a test used to detect lung cancer before any symptoms appear. Screening with low-dose CT (LDCT) scans can reduce deaths in those at high risk. The test is not recommended for everyone and it has risks as well as benefits. Below are key points you may want to use in discussion with your doctor if you are worried about your risk for lung cancer.
If you meet the following criteria, you are considered to be at "high risk" for developing lung cancer and screening is recommended:
- 50-80 years of age
- Have a 20 pack-year history of smoking (this means 1 pack a day for 20 years, 2 packs a day for 10 years, etc.)
- AND, are a current smoker, or have quit within the last 15 years
At this time, there is not enough evidence to show that screening is recommended for other groups.
A note on insurance coverage:
Medicare and many private health insurance plans cover lung cancer screening without cost-sharing, but eligibility criteria varies based on type of plan you have and many plans are currently updating their criteria to match new guidelines. Check out our coverage chart to learn more.
Be sure to check with your insurance plan for screening coverage and for any additional procedures—there may be other costs associated even if the actual screening is free. Visit the Lung Cancer Screening Insurance Checklist for questions to ask your insurance provider.
Experts look at the available data and published studies examining the implementation of CT screening (the most significant was the National Lung Screening Trial [NLST] funded by the National Cancer Institute) to determine who should be screened. If you are not in the high-risk group that means data has not shown that the benefits of screening outweigh your risks. However, there are still important ways you can reduce your lung cancer risk, such as eliminating your exposure to tobacco smoke, radon in your home and other hazardous chemicals.
Join the American Lung Association's fight to increase federal funding for cancer research at the National Institutes of Health so there can be improved early detection of lung cancer, as well as better treatments and cures for all. Sign up today at Lung.org/action.
The best way to reduce your risk is to take steps to avoid exposure to the dangerous substances most likely to cause lung cancer:
- Never smoke or stop smoking now. If you smoke, talk to your doctor or contact the Lung HelpLine (1-800-LUNGUSA) about ways to help you quit. Visit Lung.org/quit-smoking for more information.
- Avoid exposure to secondhand smoke.
- Test your home for radon, an odorless gas that causes lung cancer. Radon can be found in any home. If your home tests high for radon, take steps to repair your home to remove the radon. A certified radon contractor can fix the problem. Learn more at Lung.org/radon.
- Make sure you are safe around hazardous materials in the workplace and at home.
If you are at high risk, talk with your doctor about getting a low-dose CT scan to screen for lung cancer. Screening for lung cancer may save your life. Discuss your complete health history and ask for a clear explanation of the possible benefits and risk. There are some risks and not everyone should be screened for lung cancer. Only low-dose CT scans are recommended for screening. Chest X-rays are not recommended for lung cancer screening.
There is some radiation risk with a low-dose CT scan and you may need to have additional tests and procedures if an abnormality is found. You should go to a hospital or screening center that has a team of experts who will clearly explain the procedure to you. The team should tell you about all the risks and benefits of the screening. They should also discuss what the results can mean and how they will follow up with you after the initial screening.
A "positive" result means that the low-dose CT scan shows something abnormal. This is usually a nodule of a concerning size. You may need to have additional scans or other procedures to find out exactly what it is. These next steps should be discussed with you by your physician and/or the team of experts at the screening center.
A "negative" result means there were no abnormal findings at this time on this low-dose CT scan. It does not mean that you will never get lung cancer. Your doctor should discuss when and if you should be tested again.
There may also be an "indeterminate" result and your doctor may recommend watchful follow-up and further imaging at a later time.
The best way to reduce your lung cancer risk is to never smoke or stop smoking now. If you smoke, talk to your doctor about ways to help you quit.
The American Lung Association has a variety of lung cancer screening resources for patients and healthcare professionals. Visit Lung.org/lcscreening or call the Lung Cancer HelpLine at 1-844-ALA-LUNG for more information.
Page last updated: March 17, 2021