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If you have a significant smoking history, lung cancer screenings are the best way to monitor for signs of cancer before they appear, often leading to early treatment and even a cure. Some people delay lung cancer screenings out of fear for the unknown, but a low-dose computed tomography (CT) scan, or LDCT scan, can provide lifesaving information and empower you to take control over your lung health. To help you feel confident about seeking a lung screening, here’s what you need to know.
Have a smoking history? LDCT scans catch signs of lung cancer early when it is more easily treated. On the #MedStarHealthBlog, Nurse Practitioner Stella Wise shares how to know if you’re eligible: https://bit.ly/3h5S1CS.Click to Tweet
1. LDCT scans can detect signs of cancer before you experience symptoms.
If you wait to get screened for lung cancer until you have symptoms, lung abnormalities have time to grow and worsen, which can make treatment more complicated. Lung cancer symptoms, such as persistent coughing, shortness of breath, unexplained weight loss, excessive fatigue or coughing up blood are signs of something serious, like more advanced cancer. These symptoms should be investigated using more aggressive imaging and other tests to determine the cause and the appropriate treatment options.
That’s why it’s critical not to delay a lung cancer screening, if you’re eligible. LDCT scans help us detect the presence of lung cancer in otherwise healthy adults who have an extensive smoking history but no signs of disease. We recommend screening before symptoms occur because it helps survival rates and treatment options when something is caught early. Ultimately, early detection can save your life.
If you think you’re healthy, that’s great—let’s keep it that way. Annual screening can continue to ensure you stay healthy by catching any signs of early disease and prevent cancerous masses in the lungs from growing larger or spreading. LDCT screenings use advanced imaging to evaluate the lungs, picking up even tiny lung nodules that may not be cancerous but should be monitored.
Lung nodules don’t always lead to cancer.
A lung nodule is a small focal density that can develop in the lungs. Many times, they are harmless and non-cancerous (benign). Rather, they could be a scar from a previous infection, a sign of a current infection, or even work-related. Air-borne exposures can also cause nodules to develop in the lungs.
However, whether or not a lung nodule appears cancerous, it’s something we always want to follow. If we find a nodule during a screening, we can monitor it to ensure it doesn’t become suspicious. By detecting something this small so early, we increase the odds of discovering cancer when cure rates are higher. If you have a lung nodule that is large or seems to be growing more quickly, we may investigate further through additional testing or possible surgical removal. This may be enough to get rid of the cancer, provided that it’s in the earliest stages.
2. Regular lung screenings can significantly increase your survival rate.
While no one ever wants a cancer diagnosis, it is always better to be diagnosed in early stages rather than delaying a screening only to find out years later that you have a more advanced form of the disease that’s harder to treat.
If an LDCT scan detects cancer in your lungs early, you have more treatment options than someone who has an advanced stage of cancer. And, people who have lung cancer that is small and isolated to the lungs (localized) experience much higher survival rates than those with disease that has progressed to other organs in the body. In fact, approximately 60 percent of people diagnosed with early-stage lung cancer live at least five years after diagnosis. In comparison, the five-year survival rate is only five to six percent when cancer spreads outside of the lungs, according to the American Cancer Society.
3. It’s a quick and painless way to potentially save your life.
At MedStar Health, we make it easy and convenient to get information about your lungs that could save your life. Eligible patients have access to free LDCT screenings at several locations in the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore region. The entire appointment takes about 20 minutes on average, getting you back to your routine quickly with peace of mind.
During the screening test, a radiologist or radiologist technician will help you lie down on a table. The table will slide into a machine with a large opening and you’ll be asked to lie still and hold your breath at certain intervals while the imaging takes detailed pictures of your airways and lungs.
If there are no suspicious findings, you can expect to receive a letter in the mail, and your primary care doctor will also receive a report for your medical history. We’ll follow-up in a year to continue monitoring your lung health with another screening. If we notice something abnormal, you can expect us to call you and discuss next steps for further investigation. If we find nodules, we’ll explain how many were found as well as how large they are, and what we think we should do next. If we find something concerning, we may recommend a PET scan, which is a nuclear medicine scan that takes more detailed pictures from mid-neck to mid-thigh. This gives your providers more information about the nodule and helps guide treatment options.
4. Imaging can help detect other serious abnormalities that could otherwise go unnoticed.
LDCT scans can help us detect tiny abnormalities related to cancer, but they also help us identify other diseases in the chest and upper abdomen without additional radiation or costs. Other potential findings could be emphysema or coronary artery disease, both of which may be caused by smoking. Without the screening, these illnesses may otherwise go undetected. If we incidentally catch them early on a screening test, we can also offer better, more effective treatment options than if they’ve been given time to progress.
5. We can help you weigh the pros and cons of screening.
Current and former smokers between the ages of 50 and 80 who have a heavy smoking history are generally eligible for a screening. But, it’s important to talk to a lung expert who can determine whether or not you qualify. During a shared decision making appointment, we’ll help determine your risk for the disease by asking you questions about your:
- Smoking history, including total quantitative years and packs you’ve smoked
- Symptoms (If you have symptoms, you need a more aggressive imaging)
- Work-related exposures
- Secondhand smoke exposure
During this conversation, we can also address any questions or concerns you have. Patients sometimes question the dangers of radiation from the screening procedure itself. However, lung cancer screenings use a very minimal dose during a computed tomography scan, hence the name “low-dose CT scan.” And, delaying lung cancer screening is far riskier than any disadvantage associated with LDCT scans.
You can also take a quick, free, five-minute quiz to determine your lung cancer risk level. After the questionnaire, we’ll send you a summary of your lung health which you can use to make decisions about your next steps, whether that’s lifestyle changes or talking to a doctor about an LDCT scan. If you don’t meet the screening criteria, it doesn't necessarily mean that you don’t need a lung cancer scan, but we would want to discuss the pros and cons in a face-to-face visit.
It’s never too late to get screened or quit smoking.
Even after you stop smoking, we continue to screen 15 years after you’ve stopped smoking because you still have a risk for developing lung cancer. And if you still smoke, it’s never too late to stop. Stopping smoking helps nearly every body system, as smoking puts a lot of stress on your entire body. It doesn’t matter how old you are, there are numerous benefits to quitting the habit for good.
We’re dedicated to helping patients reclaim their health by helping them successfully quit smoking. We’ll work with you to develop a smoking cessation plan that considers your preferences, smoking history, and goals. We offer a full range of services to help you in your journey to quit, including:
- Journaling and meditation
- Group classes and support
If you are a smoker or have a smoking history, we encourage you to find out your cancer risk and determine if you are eligible for an LDCT scan. Early and frequent screening can help us monitor your lung health so that if something develops, we can treat it early and get you back to a long and fulfilling life.