One of the most dangerous aspects of lung cancer is you usually don’t see any symptoms until the cancer has already grown severe. Regular lung screenings can help you catch lung cancer in its infancy, when it’s easier to treat and possible to cure, but these screenings come with their own risks. That’s why it’s important to know whether or not your own risk of lung cancer is high enough to warrant screening.
What Are Screenings?
Screenings are a type of test that’s used when someone doesn’t have symptoms but has a higher risk of developing a health problem later in life. For example, smokers are as much as 25 times more likely to develop lung cancer than those who have never smoked. Screenings can help these at-risk people catch their cancer as early as possible.
The only reliable form of lung cancer screening is called a computed tomography (CT) scan, which combines x-rays and small doses of radiation to create detailed imaging of your lungs. The CT scan helps doctors look for small abnormalities in your lungs, which can be indicative of cancer or other ailments.
The Risks of Screenings
Unfortunately, there are a number of risks that come with a low-dose CT lung cancer screening. The test may produce a false positive, which can quickly lead to unnecessary tests and surgeries. The test may also find tumors that are harmless but end up receiving unnecessary treatment. And because the test itself involves radiation, repeated screenings can actually increase your risk of cancer. For people who aren’t likely to develop lung cancer, these extra risks simply aren’t worth taking.
Who’s at Risk?
Because not everyone should be tested, experts use lung cancer screening guidelines to determine those who are most prone to lung cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, that means heavy smokers between the ages of 55 and 74. The American Lung Association also suggests that doctors consider family history as a lung cancer screening criteria in addition to history as a smoker.
If you’re wondering whether or not you’re considered a heavy smoker, experts define heavy smoking as having racked up 30 or more pack-years during your lifetime. A pack-year is when a smoker consumes 1 pack each day for at least 1 year. That means if you were smoking 3 packs a day for a year, you would have 3 pack-years in only 1 calendar year.
Screenings aren’t a one-time thing— anyone who’s at risk for lung cancer should be screened annually. If you haven’t smoked for the past 15 years, it’s safe to stop screening. If you’re over 74, it may be time to stop screening for lung cancer if you’re also no longer in good enough health to undergo treatment. Until then, if you match the criteria for lung cancer screening, the important thing is that you talk to your doctor right away. Lung cancer is very treatable in its early stages but quickly becomes deadly if left undetected.