By Jim Miller
Dear Savvy Senior,
What can you tell me about lung cancer screenings? My husband was a long-time smoker, but quit many years ago, so I’m wondering if he should be checked out.
According to recent recommendations from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force—an independent panel of medical experts that advises the government on health policies—if your husband is between the ages of 55 and 80, is a current smoker or quit within the last 15 years, and has a smoking history of at least 30 pack-years, he’s at high risk for lung cancer and should talk to his doctor about getting screened.
Pack years are determined by multiplying the number of packs he smoked daily by the number of years he smoked.
You’ll also be happy to know that lung cancer screenings—which are recommended annually to those at risk—will be covered by all private health insurance plans starting in 2015, and Medicare is expected to begin coverage this February or March. The Medicare screening, however, will only cover high-risk beneficiaries through age 74.
Lung cancer kills around 160,000 Americans each year, making it the most deadly of all possible cancers. In fact, more people die of lung cancer than of colon, breast and prostate cancers combined.
Lung cancer also occurs predominantly in older adults. About two out of every three people diagnosed with lung cancer are 65 or older, and the risk of lung cancer peaks at age 71.
Lung Cancer Screening
The goal of annual screenings is to detect cancer early before symptoms appear. The five-year survival rate among people with lung cancer when it’s caught in its earliest stage is 77 percent, versus only 4 to 25 percent for people whose cancer has spread.
To get screened for lung cancer, your husband will need a low-dose computed tomography (CT) chest scan, which is a painless, noninvasive test that generates detailed three-dimensional images of his lungs.
For the screening, he will be asked to lie on a table that slides through the center of a large, doughnut shaped scanner that rotates around him to take images. Each scan takes just a few seconds, during which time he’ll be asked to hold his breath, because movement can produce blurred images. The entire procedure takes only a few minutes from start to finish.
You also need to be aware that a lung CT screening has its downsides. First, it exposes you to some radiation—about the same as a mammography, but more that of a chest X-ray.
Lung CT screenings aren’t foolproof either. They can produce a high rate of false-positive results, which means they frequently detect small spots (abnormalities) on the lungs that are suggestive of cancer, but aren’t cancerous. These false alarms lead to more testing and sometimes lung biopsies, as well as unnecessary worry and anxiety.
Because smoking causes 80 to 90 percent of all lung cancer cases, the best way to avoid lung cancer is to not smoke, and if you do smoke, quit. Even if you’ve been a smoker for a long time, quitting now still decreases your risk. Other factors that can increase the risk of lung cancer include exposure to secondhand smoke, radon, asbestos and other toxic chemicals or fumes.
For more information on lung cancer screenings, call the American Lung Association at 800-586-4872, or use their online tool (LungCancerScreeningSavesLives.org), which will help you determine if your husband needs to be screened.
Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.