Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death. This is because most lung cancers are in advanced stages when first detected. During Lung Cancer Awareness Month, we’re focusing on the importance of early detection.
Symptoms often don’t appear until the disease is widespread, leading to a lack of early diagnoses. Even early-stage symptoms are often mistaken for other problems. Some symptoms include:
- Prolonged cough that worsens over time
- Chest discomfort
- Wheezing and trouble breathing
- Coughing up bloody mucus
If lung cancer is found at an earlier stage, it may be easier to treat. Sometimes cancerous cells are found during tests for other diseases, such as pneumonia, other lung conditions or heart disease. Though accidental, this kind of early detection could improve a patient’s outcome.
Lung Cancer Screening
Screening for lung cancer is an attempt to detect the disease before symptoms present themselves. If your doctor suggests that you undergo lung cancer screening, remember that it doesn’t mean they think you have lung cancer.
It is simply a recommendation, usually given to those at higher risk for lung cancer, such as a history of smoking or being exposed to other environmental toxins. It’s important to remember there are risks and benefits associated with being tested.
There are three tests commonly used to screen for lung cancer:
- Low-dose spiral CT (LDCT) scans use low-dose radiation and an x-ray machine to detect abnormal cells. Studies show that screening with the LDCT scan does reduce the risk of heavy smokers dying from lung cancer.
- Chest x-rays of your lungs may reveal an abnormal mass or nodule.
- Sputum cytology checks for signs of lung cancer like cancer cells in your mucus.
New blood tests known as “liquid biopsies” are on the horizon as a new early-detection tool and have seen positive results. These tests are still in the research phase and not yet ready for widespread distribution.
Despite the benefits of early detection, lung cancer screening may not be beneficial for everyone. In some cases, finding the cancer early has minimal affects on the cancer’s outcome. There is also a chance that the test could produce either false-negative or false-positive results.
Talk to Your Healthcare Provider
To decide if lung cancer screening is right for you, have an honest conversation with your healthcare provider. For patients with a higher risk for lung cancer, yearly screening that leads to early detection could be well worth any risks associated with lung cancer screening.
If something abnormal is found during the routine screening, it means doctors can act quickly to formulate a treatment plan. This gives patients the best chance of recovery.