What you need to know about lung cancer screenings and risk

Husband and wife in their 60s running outside in the woods in the summer


Annual screenings can save lives for people at high risk of developing lung cancer 

Lung cancer screenings can save lives. In fact, deaths from lung cancer in the United States are decreasing. More access to screenings, fewer people smoking tobacco and advancements in lung cancer treatments have contributed to this decline.

This progress is great news. Yet, lung cancer continues to be the leading cause of death from cancer in the United States.

Lung cancer screenings are critical to early detection and treatment, which can improve outcomes for people with lung cancer. Here is what you need to know about screenings and how to reduce your risk of developing lung cancer.


What is a lung cancer screening?

A lung cancer screening is a health check that looks for changes from year to year, like a colonoscopy and mammogram. A lung cancer screening checks your lungs when you do not have symptoms or a history of lung cancer.


Who should be screened for lung cancer?

You should have annual screenings if you are at high risk of developing lung cancer because you meet the following criteria:

  • Have a history of heavy smoking, and

  • Smoke now or quit within the past 15 years, and

  • Are between 50 and 80 years old

Heavy smoking means a smoking history of 20 pack years or more. A pack year is smoking an average of one pack of cigarettes per day for one year. For example, someone could have a 20 pack-year history by smoking one pack a day for 20 years or two packs a day for 10 years.


What should I do if I am nervous about being screened for lung cancer?

It is normal to have anxiety about getting screened for lung cancer. You can feel good about taking control of your health and having annual lung cancer screenings.

If your doctor recommends screenings for you, it does not mean they think you have lung cancer. In fact, a vast majority of people who get screened do not have lung cancer.

It is important to be screened for lung cancer if your doctor recommends it. If a lung cancer screening finds something unusual, it may be able to find it at an early stage. Survival rates are better when lung cancer is found earlier.


What happens during a lung cancer screening?

You will have a low-dose CT scan of your lungs during a lung cancer screening. This type of scan takes about 10 minutes.

A low-dose CT scan uses 75 percent less radiation than a traditional CT scan and shows more detail than a standard chest X-ray. A low-dose CT scan is currently the only method recommended for lung cancer screening.

How can I get a lung cancer screening?

Speak with your primary care provider about your health history to learn if they recommend screenings for you. They should be able to connect you with a lung cancer screening facility.

Most health insurance plans, including Medicare and Medicaid, cover lung cancer screenings for people who meet screening guidelines.

Learn about lung cancer screenings at Nuvance Health.


How can I reduce my risk of developing lung cancer?

Follow these steps to reduce your risk of developing lung cancer:


Avoid tobacco smoke

Do not smoke tobacco. If you currently smoke, stop. If you never smoked, do not start.

Avoid secondhand tobacco smoke, which means being regularly exposed to someone else’s cigarette smoke. Speak with your doctor if you need help quitting smoking. 

You can also call 1-800-Quit-Now to be connected to your state’s Smoking Cessation Hotline and speak with someone who can offer advice.


Avoid exposure to carcinogens

Avoid regular exposure to substances known to cause cancer, called carcinogens, such as asbestos and radon gas:

Eat healthy and exercise regularly

Eating a healthy diet full of fruits and vegetables and getting regular exercise can reduce your risk of developing many diseases including cancer.


I do not smoke cigarettes, but I vape tobacco. Is that okay?

Research about exactly how vaping affects the lungs is still in the early stages because vaping, or using e-cigarettes, is fairly new. That is one main reason why you should not vape — we do not know the long-term consequences of vaping yet.

What we do know is that like smoking — which we know is bad for your lungs — vaping also involves heating a substance and inhaling the resulting fumes.


Am I at risk for lung cancer if I never smoked?

Most lung cancer occurs in individuals who have a history of smoking. However, you do not have to smoke to get lung cancer. About 20 percent of people who die from lung cancer each year have never smoked.

Speak with your doctor about your risk factors for lung cancer such as family history and possible exposure to carcinogens to understand your risk for developing lung cancer.


Related content: Advances in lung cancer care lead to a decrease in overall cancer death rate


Bottom line: Please get annual lung cancer screenings if your doctor recommends them for you. Screenings are a simple way to take control of your health. If cancer is detected, please know that there are more options for treatment now than ever before. Keep up the great work by not smoking tobacco and speaking with your doctor about your risk for lung cancer.