Most people know that the number one risk factor for lung cancer — defined as a cancer that starts in the lungs — is cigarette smoking. About 90% of all lung cancers are due to cigarette smoking. But what about the other 10%? Lung cancer can also be attributed to a family history of the disease, or can also be caused by exposure to radon or asbestos, or breathing in second-hand smoke.
That’s why screening for lung cancer in people at high risk can be so important. As with other types of cancer, earlier detection can improve outcomes. Some symptoms — such as a persistent cough that may or may not be bloody — can eventually lead to a diagnosis of lung cancer. But by the time someone experiences the symptoms associated with this disease, it can be very late in the course of the illness.
Should You Be Screened for Lung Cancer?
Data from the National Lung Cancer Screening Trial (NLST) has shown that screening cigarette smokers using low-dose spiral computed tomography (CT) reduces lung cancer death by 20%. Based on these results, the American Lung Association recommends screening the chest with spiral low-dose CT, which uses a lower amount of radiation than traditional CT scans. But not everyone needs to be screened for the disease. The American Lung Association recommends screening only people who meet the eligibility criteria used in the NLST trial.
Is this screening recommended for you? According to the American Lung Association, it is if you are:
- A current or former smoker
- AND in the age group from 55 to 74 years
- AND have a smoking history of at least 30 pack-years. Pack-years are calculated by multiplying the number of packs smoked per day and the number of years of smoking. For example, 2 packs a day for 15 years is equal to 30 pack-years
I'm Not At High Risk – Should I Still Be Concerned?
If you’re not at high risk, you should still be aware of other risk factors for lung cancer. They include:
- A family history of lung cancer
- Use of other forms of tobacco such as pipe or cigar
- Contact with asbestos or radon
- Contact with secondhand smoke
If you have even one of these risk factors, be sure to talk to your doctor about when and if you should be screened for lung cancer.
And if you’re a smoker, keep in mind that it’s never too late to quit, and quit completely. After all, there is no “safe” level of tobacco use. Make a plan to stop today, talk with your doctor, and then stick with your plan. Your lungs will thank you!