For the media

Finding lung cancer when it’s most treatable

By The Health News Team | Updated November 7, 2023
CT scan for lung cancer detection

Lung cancer is one of the most common and deadly cancers. According to the American Cancer Society, in 2023 about twenty percent of cancer-related deaths in the U.S. are from lung cancer. There’s a 1 in 16 chance for men to develop lung cancer; 1 in 17 for women. And, if you’re thinking, “I don’t smoke, so these statistics don’t apply to me,” think again.

“As many as 20% of the people who die from lung cancer every year don’t smoke or use any other form of tobacco,” says Dr. Tere Trout, a board-certified diagnostic radiologist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital.

“But smoking increases your risk,” she says. “Staying away from tobacco is the most important thing any of us can do to lower that risk.” Other factors include exposure to secondhand smoke, radon gas, asbestos and air pollution, as well as unusual genetic mutations.

If you do smoke, low-dose spiral (or helical) computerized tomography — also known as a CT scan — is one of the best tools for early lung cancer detection.

“CT scans are more sensitive than chest X-rays and detect much smaller abnormalities,” says Dr. Trout. “The scan uses X-rays to make detailed, cross-sectional images, basically a series of slices to show the shape, size and location of anything abnormal in the lungs.”

Detecting a cancerous growth early while it’s small, means a higher chance of survival and it’s less likely that the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. The traditional X-ray can identify abnormalities the size of a dime, whereas CT scans can reveal lung cancer about the size of a grain of rice.

Insurance will usually cover lung cancer screening once a year for beneficiaries if you meet the following criteria:

  • Ages 50 through through 80 years old (or between 50 and 77 years old if on Medicare).

  • A 20 pack-year history of smoking (this means 1 pack a day for 20 years, two packs a day for 10 years).

  • A current smoker, or have quit within the last 15 years.

The procedure is relatively easy and takes about 10 minutes. Shaped like a doughnut, the CT scanner rotates around a patient while they’re lying down.

During a CT scan, the patient is briefly exposed to ionizing radiation, but all radiation-related risks are minimized by using a low-dose technique. And the benefits outweigh the small potential risk.

“It’s important to keep in mind that we’re all exposed to radiation from natural sources all the time,” says Dr. Trout. “We can compare the radiation exposure from a CT scan as equivalent to the amount of radiation exposure one experiences from our natural surroundings in six months.”

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