Lung cancer screening

Some statistics on lung cancer in Australia

Lung cancer is fourth leading cause of death in Australia. Deaths from lung cancer are greater than those caused by bowel cancer and breast cancer combined.

What is lung cancer screening?

Lung cancer screening is a test to see if there are any early signs of lung cancer in people who are not showing any symptoms. It allows lung cancer to be caught at an early stage, which greatly improves the chances of treating it successfully.

Unlike bowel cancer and breast cancer, there is currently no government screening program for lung cancer, this is because it is only useful for people who are at high risk of developing lung cancer, and this is mainly long term smokers.

Current guidelines in the US (there are no guidelines in Australia) recommend an annual lung cancer screening for individuals who...

  • Have a history of heavy smoking (this is defined as 30 'pack years' ie smoking a pack (of 20 cigarettes) a day for 30 years or two packs a day for 15 years) AND
  • Currently smoke or quit in the previous 15 years AND
  • Are aged 55-80 years

What is involved in lung cancer screening?

Research on the effectiveness of chest x-rays in identifying lung cancer has shown that they are in fact not very effective at all. Computed Tomography (CT) scans are much better at identifying early stage lung cancer, particularly a type of CT scan called an 'LDCT scan' which stands for 'low dose computed tomography'. As the name implies, it uses a much lower level of radiation than a conventional CT scan and provides a much more detailed image of the lungs than a chest x-ray.

An LDCT scan involves lying on a table that slides inside a large donut shaped scanner which takes multiple scans of the body. The procedure does not require any preparation, is painless and takes minutes to complete.

What are the risks of having a lung cancer screening?

There are two risks...

1) A false positive

A false positive is where the scan indicates an 'abnormality' that may indicate early stage lung cancer. In fact 95% of people whohave an abnormal scan during screening turn out not to have lung cancer after further tests. These tests may involve a full CT scan and/or a lung biopsy.

2) Radiation exposure

Even though the low dose CT scan is a much lower dose of radiation than from a full scan, multiple tests will increase your radiation exposure

Is lung cancer screening for me?

If you are high risk as set out above, regular (annual) lung cancer screening may be worthwhile. Consult your doctor to see if screening is the right option for you.