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The Best Way to Catch Lung Cancer Early

If you are a current or former smoker, here’s how to protect yourself from lung cancer.

No one wants to hear that they have lung cancer, but if you are a current or former smoker, finding out that you have this disease at an early stage can be the difference between life and death. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related death around the world and this is due in part to the fact that lung cancer is often not diagnosed until the cancer is in advanced stages, when treatment options are limited.

What can be done to detect lung cancer early when it’s most treatable?

One of the best ways to detect lung cancer early is with a low-dose CT scan. This screening test can identify cancer in the lungs long before a person experiences any symptoms. Not everyone is eligible to receive this screening, but the US Preventive Services Task Force has put together a set of guidelines to determine who should get an annual low-dose CT scan. Criteria for screening includes:

  • Being between the ages of 50 and 80 years old
  • Being a current smoker or having quit smoking within the past 15 years
  • Having a 20 pack-year smoking history
  • Not having a health problem that limits life expectancy or the ability to have surgery if cancer is found

To determine your pack-year smoking history, multiply how many packs of cigarettes you smoked per day by the number of years you smoked. For example, if you smoked one pack a day for 20 years, you would have a 20-pack-year smoking history. If you smoked two packs a day for 15 years, you would have a 30-pack-year smoking history.

Is there any other way to detect lung cancer besides a low-dose CT scan?

Currently, this screening is the only one that is recommended as being effective for detecting lung cancer early. A regular chest x-ray may miss early-stage lung cancers. Sputum cytology, a test that checks for abnormal cells in sputum, has also not proved to be effective in early lung cancer detection.

Waiting until you experience symptoms of lung cancer is not an effective way of protecting yourself against lung cancer either. Although you should certainly see a doctor if you have any of the following symptoms, this disease usually doesn’t produce symptoms until more advanced stages.

Symptoms of lung cancer may include:

  • Coughing that gets worse or doesn’t go away
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Wheezing
  • Coughing up blood
  • Experiencing lung infections that keep coming back
  • Constant fatigue
  • Weight loss with no known cause

What happens if you find out you have early-stage lung cancer?

There are a variety of treatment options for early stages of lung cancer. Surgery is usually recommended if the tumor has not spread. Chemo or radiation may be used before surgery to shrink the size of the tumor. It may also be used after surgery. Targeted therapy and immunotherapy may also be considered. Once the cancer has spread and is not localized in the lung, it is harder to treat and the prognosis is typically not as good.

Pre-screening for lung cancer can detect cell mutation in the earliest stages, making it more treatable, and in some cases, even curable. Do you know your risk for lung cancer? Taking our online risk assessment is quick and easy. Click here to get started.

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Date Last Reviewed: September 19, 2023

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD

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