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

How do you know if you have lung cancer?

Early lung cancer screening saves lives

As the old saying goes, “If you’re not early, you’re late.”

Those are good words to live by when you’re talking about screening for cancer – 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 cancers 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. “Don’t wait until you start coughing up blood.”

Lung cancer screening criteria

The most effective screen for early detection is the low-dose computed tomography scan (low-dose CT). The low-dose ct lung cancer screening is intended for men and women with the highest risk of getting lung cancer.

Are you eligible to undergo screening for lung cancer? The criteria are as follows:

  • 50-80 years old
  • A 20 pack-year smoking history equal to 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 meet those criteria, ask your primary care provider about getting a low-dose CT scan for 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 experiencing 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 cancer early enough to maximize survival.

Risk factors of lung cancer

A person’s history of smoking tobacco can put them at higher risk for lung cancer. But smoking isn’t the only risk factor. There are some risk factors you can control and some you can’t.

Even people who have never smoked can be at risk for lung cancer. If you are exposed to secondhand smoke, asbestos, radon, arsenic in your drinking water or toxic workplace chemicals, you may be at a higher risk for lung cancer. These are risk factors you can control to at least some degree.

Risk factors for lung cancer that you can’t control include air pollution and whether you have a family history of lung cancer.

Quick, easy and painless

Know your risk for lung cancer

> Take the assessment

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.

The results are read by a radiologist and assigned a number. Most results are available within 24 hours.

What do your CT results mean?

  • A 1 means no cancer appears on your scan at all.
  • A 2 means there is a benign appearance or behavior, and you will want to monitor it, but there’s very little likelihood of cancer. In either case, you should be back for another screening in 12 months.
  • A 3 means a growth was found that is probably benign, but you’ll want to scan again in six months. And on and on, etc.

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 regularly, 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.

Don’t ignore lung cancer 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,” Matt said.

Last Updated: February 10, 2023

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About Author: Kirk Wessler

After being a writer for OSF HealthCare for three years, Kirk Wessler retired in January 2022. A Peoria native and graduate of Bradley University, Kirk's experience included working for newspapers in Missouri, Texas and the Peoria Journal Star.

Kirk and his wife, Mary Frances, have five sons, four daughters-in-law and nine grandchildren. Kirk plans to spend his retirement on the golf course, mastering the guitar and traveling.

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Categories: Cancer, Lung & Respiratory Health