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Do You Need a Lung Cancer Screening? Updated Guidelines Expand Eligibility

Are you at risk for lung cancer? While guidelines vary, the United States Preventive Task Force (USPTF) recently updated their guidelines to expand eligibility for CT lung cancer screening to a much broader audience. Previously, only those individuals between the ages of 55 and 77-80 considered at high risk for lung cancer were eligible for a screening. As of last month, all high-risk individuals between the ages of 50 to 80 are now eligible to be screened once per year.

In addition, the “pack-years” guidelines were reduced from 30 down to 20. This means if you smoked a pack a day for 20 years, or two packs a day for ten years and you meet the other criteria, you can ask your primary care physician for a CT lung cancer screening.

Individuals Eligible for CT Lung Cancer Screening Per New Guidelines

(as set forth by the United States Preventive Task Force)

You are eligible for a low-dose CT Lung Cancer Screening if you:

  • Are between the ages of 50 and 80 years old
  • Are a current smoker or previous smoker who has quit within the past 15 years
  • Have a smoking history of at least 20 pack-years (1 pack a day for 20 years, or 2 packs a day for 10 years)

Why Update the Guidelines?

Lung cancer is the second most common cancer and the leading cause of cancer death in the US. When compared to other cancers, the prognosis is generally poor, with an overall 5-year survival rate of just 20.5%. Because early-stage lung cancer is easier to treat and offers better outcomes, early detection is key.

“Everyone seems to know about the importance of screening for breast and colon cancers, but lung cancer screening doesn’t seem to get the attention it deserves,” explains Dr. Anna Conterato, WakeMed pulmonologist and critical care medicine physician. “These new guidelines reinforce that CT lung cancer screening is an important tool that’s saving lives.”

Risk Factors for Lung Cancer

Smoking and older age are the top two risk factors for developing lung cancer, with smoking identified as the cause of an estimated 90 percent of lung cancers. Those individuals who smoke more, for longer are at greater risk than more casual smokers. Other risk factors include environmental exposures, prior radiation therapy, other (noncancer) lung diseases, and family history.

Getting Screened: What to Expect from a CT Lung Cancer Screening

A low-dose CT lung cancer screening is a simple diagnostic test that can be performed at most imaging centers. It takes approximately ten minutes from start to finish, and the patient remains fully clothed during the scan. Your results will be read by a skilled radiologist who will share any findings in a report that will go directly to the doctor who ordered the exam (typically a primary care physician or pulmonologist). If any abnormalities are found, your doctor will discuss them with you. In some cases, if a smaller nodule is found, your physician may recommend a “wait and watch” approach where you will be screened regularly to see if the nodule grows, or they may send you for further testing or evaluation. If a larger mass is found, your physician will promptly refer you to a pulmonologist and/or thoracic surgeon for evaluation and treatment.

A CT lung cancer screening requires a physician’s order. We encourage you to discuss the benefits of a lung cancer screening with your primary care physician. Once your physician has ordered the screening, you can schedule an appointment with your imaging provider of choice.

Regular screening not only saves lives, it can also give patients who are at greater risk for lung cancer peace of mind. “As a pulmonologist, I see many patients who know they’re at risk for lung cancer and this worries them,” explains Dr. Conterato. “Patients who are nervous about lung cancer can now take matters into their own hands by requesting this simple screening, which can help with early detection. Having this control is very powerful for many patients.”

Lastly, Dr. Conterato likes to remind patients who smoke that the most powerful approach for reducing one’s risk of dying from lung cancer is to quit smoking and get screened regularly.  WakeMed’s Quit With WakeMed program is a highly-effective tobacco cessation program that is currently open to WakeMed Primary Care patients (with plans for future expansion). To learn more, call 919-350-QUIT (7848).

Note: Because these guidelines have been recently updated, insurance coverage may vary. As with any elective procedure, WakeMed will work with your insurance carrier to seek pre-approval prior to scheduling a CT lung screening.

5 Fast Facts About Lung Cancer & CT Screening

  1. Lung cancer is the second most common cancer and the leading cause of cancer death in the US.
  2. In 2020, an estimated 228,820 people were diagnosed with lung cancer, and nearly 136,000 lost their battle to the disease.
  3. The median age of diagnosis of lung cancer is 70 years.
  4. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, CT lung cancer screenings were associated with a 20 percent reduction in lung cancer-related deaths.
  5. The radiation exposure from a low-dose CT lung cancer screening is about the same as you’d experience on a flight from New York to Los Angeles.

WakeMed offers CT lung cancer screening at locations throughout the Triangle, including: Raleigh, North Raleigh, Brier Creek, Cary, Apex and Garner. Once you have a physician’s order, schedule your lung cancer screening today by calling 919-350-LUNG (5864).