Lung cancer is by far the leading cause of cancer death. The American Cancer Society says lung cancer makes up almost 25% of all cancer deaths. Each year, more people die of lung cancer than of colon, breast, and prostate cancers combined.

If lung cancer is detected early, there are higher chances that it can be treated, removed or even cured. But if lung cancer is found at a later stage, like stage III or IV, the likelihood of complete resection or cure is much less likely. Usually, symptoms of lung cancer don't appear until the disease is already at an advanced stage. Even when lung cancer does cause symptoms, many people may mistake them for other problems, such as an infection or long-term effects from smoking. This may delay the diagnosis.

“That is why low-dose CT (LDCT) scan of the lungs is so important to get, especially for older adults who have smoked heavily for many years or who have quit in the past 15 years,” said Sunayna Bakaya, M.D., medical director, MemorialCare Imaging Center, Long Beach Medical Center. “LDCT scans can help in early detection of abnormal areas in the lungs that may be cancer. Research has shown that unlike chest x-rays, annual LDCT scans to screen people at higher risk of lung cancer can save lives.”

In the Lung Program at the MemorialCare Todd Cancer Institute, physicians use the low-dose CT scanner to see a detailed picture of the patient’s lungs. A LDCT scan uses low-dose radiation to take a series of X-rays to produce both 2-D views of the chest as well as 3-D images of the lungs. Taken from different angles, these pictures provide the needed details to diagnose both cancerous and non-cancerous lesions or nodules. A nodule is an abnormal spot or mass found on the lungs. Although a cause for concern, lung nodules are common and often benign. Yet careful monitoring for even the smallest changes can be indicative of something more serious. The Todd Cancer Institute is a leader in the field of imaging and offers advanced medical imaging equipment like the LDCT scanner. Using a CT Scan increases the detection of lung cancer at Stage I up to the rate of 85%.

The amount of radiation that a patient is exposed to in a LDCT scan is very low. It’s about the same amount that they would be exposed to if they took a flight across the United States and back. The risk of any harm during screening certainly outweighs what could happen to you if you never get screened at all. You can have lung cancer and not even know it.

Dr. Bakaya

Who Should Get Screened?

According to the National Cancer Institute, screening with LDCT scans has been shown to decrease the risk of dying from lung cancer in heavy smokers. The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends annual screening for lung cancer with low-dose computed tomography in adults aged 50 to 80 years who have a 20-pack-a-year smoking history and currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years. Those individuals should get a LDCT scan every year.

“There is, unfortunately, a stigma around lung cancer,” stated Dr. Bakaya. “Though non-smokers can get lung cancer, a majority of lung cancer patients are former smokers and many feel guilt and stigma associated with their disease. Many people believe that unlike most other cancers, lung cancer is self-induced. We need to remember that many people started smoking before they knew the deadly and harmful effects of nicotine. And again, there are also many people who get lung cancer who never smoked a cigarette a day in their life.”

Dr. Bakaya recommends people talk to their primary care physicians to figure out if they are a candidate for an LDCT scan, especially if they are a former smoker. The MemorialCare Todd Cancer Institute at Long Beach Medical Center also aims to help people stop smoking. The Todd Cancer Institute offers the American Lung Association’s free virtual Freedom from Smoking Program. This program includes eight group-style virtual meetings and features a step-by-step plan to help tobacco users gain control over their behavior and quit smoking. Sign up here for the free classes.