Middle-aged man in artist studio considering lung cancer screening.

Don’t wait to get screened for lung cancer

A longtime sports coach used this line to drive home the importance of being punctual: “If you’re not early, you’re late.”

Those are good words to live by when you’re screening for cancer, too. Lung cancer, in particular.

Almost 25% of cancer deaths in the United States are due to lung cancer. Statistics from the American Cancer Society show lung cancer kills more than breast, colon and prostate cancer combined.

But studies show that when lung cancer is caught and treated in Stage 1 or 2, you increase your five-year survival rate by 59%. That’s almost double your chances to survive if the cancer isn’t discovered until it has advanced to Stage 3 or 4.

And this is critical: If you’re at risk for lung cancer, get screened before you start having symptoms.

“People who are having symptoms have likely already progressed to advanced stages. You want to get screened before you have symptoms,” said Matt Burton, manager of medical imaging for OSF HealthCare Saint James-John W. Albrecht Medical Center.

“Don’t wait until you start coughing up blood.”

Screening criteria

The most effective screen for early detection is the low-dose CT scan (low-dose computed tomography). The screening is intended for men and women with the highest risk of getting lung cancer. They must meet these criteria, which were updated by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force in 2021:

  • 55-80 years old
  • A 20-pack year history of smoking (one pack per day for 20 years, two packs a day for 10 years, etc.)
  • Show no signs or symptoms of lung cancer
  • Be a current smoker or have quit in the last 15 years

If you satisfy those criteria, ask your primary care provider about getting a low-dose CT scan for lung cancer.

Quick, easy and painless

Getting screened is quick, easy and painless. No preparation is required.

You arrive at your appointment and register. Then you enter the CT room, lay on a table and go into the scanner three times.

“From the time you walk into CT until you walk out takes about 15 minutes,” Matt said.

Most results are available within 24 hours.

Maintain early detection

Know your risk for lung cancer

> Take the assessment

“The results are read by a radiologist and assigned a number,” Matt said.

“A 1 is negative. A 2 means there is a benign appearance or behavior, and we’ll want to watch that, but there’s very little likelihood of cancer. In either case, we will see you in 12 months to have the same screening. A 3 is probably benign, but we’ll want to scan again in six months.”

Higher numbers indicate a greater likelihood of cancer, and additional tests will be ordered. If lung cancer is confirmed, you’ll enter treatment. If not, then you’ll be scheduled for screenings on a regular basis, similar to what happens when your reading is a lower number.

As long as no cancer is discovered, your screenings will continue until you have aged out of the program.

Criteria based on statistics

The criteria are based on research to determine who is at the highest risk for getting lung cancer.

“The procedures are designed to catch the most people with treatable lung cancer. There are outliers, such as the person who is still smoking at age 90 and has no problem,” Matt said.

People who experience lung cancer symptoms are ineligible for screening because they are more likely to have advanced cancer and would benefit more from different testing. Screening is intended to identify the cancer early enough to maximize survival.

But don’t ignore symptoms.

“If you don’t meet the criteria and you have a concern, or if you are scared after reading this, check with your provider. We can get a chest X-ray,” Matt said. “Also, stop smoking as soon as possible.”

But if you meet the criteria for screening, don’t wait till it’s too late.

“Do it before you think you need it done.”

About Author: Kirk Wessler

Kirk Wessler started work as a writing coordinator for OSF HealthCare in January 2019. A Peoria native and graduate of Bradley University, he previously worked for newspapers in Missouri, Texas and most recently at the Peoria Journal Star.

Kirk and his wife, MaryFrances, have five sons, four daughters-in-law and nine grandchildren. He’s on a quest to master playing guitar and golf. He also loves to travel, especially driving back roads.

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Categories: Cancer, Lung & Respiratory Health