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Published on October 22, 2015

Lung Screening: It could save your life

You probably visit your doctor for checkups and recommended screenings such as mammograms and colonoscopies. But have you considered whether you should be screened for lung cancer?

Lung cancer causes more deaths than colorectal, prostate and breast cancers combined. In fact, lung cancer is America’s second leading cause of death, behind heart disease.  “The high death rate is partly due to lung cancer being found in most patients after it has spread,” says Madhuri Yalamanchili, MD, a medical oncologist with Broome Oncology. Lung cancer generally doesn’t cause symptoms until it has spread beyond the lungs. That’s why it is important for people at high risk for lung cancer to be screened.

Lung cancer screening at UHS is a noninvasive procedure using the latest technology: low-dose CT scanning. In this procedure, a powerful X-ray device rotates around your body, generating cross-sectional images of your lungs. The detailed images allow doctors to see cancerous nodules and small tumors early, often before cancer has spread.

Compared to traditional chest X-rays, low-dose CT scans are four times more likely to detect cancerous tumors and six times more likely to detect stage I cancers. “In addition, lung cancer screening might also show if you have other conditions or diseases that need to be treated, like emphysema,” says Dr. Yalamanchili.

Anybody at high risk for lung cancer should consider screening. These factors increase your risk for lung cancer:

  • Smoking. People who smoke cigarettes are 15 to 30 times more likely to get lung cancer than nonsmokers. The more years a person smokes and the more cigarettes they smoke per day, the higher their risk. Other tobacco products, such as cigars or pipes, also increase lung cancer risk. 
  • Secondhand smoke. Nonsmokers who are exposed to secondhand smoke at home or work increase their risk for lung cancer by 20 to 30 percent. 
  • Environmental exposure. Exposure to radon, a naturally occurring odorless gas, is the second leading cause of lung cancer. Exposure to substances found at some workplaces can also increase lung cancer risk, including asbestos, arsenic and diesel exhaust. 
  • Family history. People with parents, siblings or children who have had lung cancer may have a higher risk for lung cancer.

If you have any of these factors, talk with your doctor or a UHS nurse navigator to decide if screening is right for you.

UHS nurse navigators are on hand to help if you have questions or concerns about lung cancer screening. They will meet with you to discuss the benefits and dangers before the test is scheduled.

Many patients are concerned about whether their insurance will cover the test. The good news is that for people who can benefit from the test, it’s often covered. Medicare covers lung cancer screening for people who meet criteria for having high risk for lung cancer. Most private health insurance carriers have similar policies. Before you schedule your test, a UHS nurse navigator will check with your insurance provider and get approval.

It’s scary to think about cancer, but screening can increase survival and quality of life if you do have lung cancer. Studies have shown that people at high risk for lung cancer who get annual low-dose CT scans, rather than chest X-rays, can reduce their chance of dying from lung cancer by 20 percent. This is because low-dose CT scans catch cancers earlier, when they are easier to treat. “Lung cancer caught early has a higher chance of a cure,” says Dr. Yalamanchili. “And survival rates are much higher when cancers are caught at a relatively smaller size.”

If you’re at high risk for lung cancer, knowing you’re doing everything you can to catch it early can bring peace of mind.

To learn if you are a candidate for lung screening, call UHS Nurse Direct at 607-763-LUNG (5864).