Don’t Let Lung Cancer Overshadow Your “Golden Years”

Organization: Author:
Sunayna Bakaya, M.D., medical director, Imaging Center, MemorialCare Long Beach Medical Center

According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer mainly occurs in older adults. The average age of people when diagnosed is about 70.

Historically, lung cancer is often found late and in an advanced stage, making it harder than other cancers to treat. As a result, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths among both men and women in the United States and claims more lives each year than colon, breast and prostate cancers combined. That statistic could change as more people begin to get regular lung cancer screenings.

The screening for lung cancer was developed as a result of the National Lung Cancer Screening Trial, which was sponsored by the National Cancer Institute. The National Lung Cancer Screening Trial demonstrated that an annual screening with low-dose computed tomography scanning under the guidance of a dedicated comprehensive lung cancer screening program resulted in a 20 percent decrease in deaths related to lung cancer.

A lung cancer screening is a regular preventive health check, like a mammogram or a colonoscopy, that checks your lungs while you are feeling healthy and looks for any changes from year to year.

Using a type of CT scan known as low-dose CT, physicians can view detailed pictures of the chest to help find abnormalities in the lungs that a normal x-ray can’t, while using lower amounts of radiation than a standard chest CT. This is important, since frequent exposure to higher doses of radiation may cause additional health problems. But the best part, is that the scan takes less than a minute.

Just because your doctor recommends a lung cancer screening, doesn’t mean he or she thinks you have cancer. For every 100 people screened, approximately one percent will result in a cancer diagnosis, based on data from the National Lung Cancer Screening Trial. This is important to do whether you are a current smoker or a former smoker, who hasn’t smoked in years.

A lung cancer screening is recommended if you:

  • Are between 55 and 80-years-old
    • Private insurance will cover the screening if you meet the high-risk criteria and are 55 – 80 years old.
    • If you’re a Medicare beneficiary, the screening will be covered if you meet the criteria and are between 55 – 77 years old.
    • The out of pocket cost for a lung cancer screening is $193.
  • Are currently a smoker or have quit within the past 15 years
  • Have smoked at least a pack of cigarettes a day for 30 years (or the equivalent)

The criteria for the screening is heavily dependent on age, since lung cancer occurs most often after age 65, as well as your history with smoking, since the American Lung Association estimates that smoking is responsible for close to 90 percent of lung cancer cases.

Regardless of your decision to receive a lung cancer screening, quitting smoking is the best way to reduce your risk for developing lung cancer and ensure you make the most of your golden years.

The risk you have accumulated from smoking never disappears. However, after being smoke-free for 10 years, you’re half as likely to die from lung cancer, according to the American Heart Association.

How high your risk is depends on several factors, such as how many years you smoked, how many cigarettes you smoked per day and what age you started to smoke. It’s also important to remember that there are many benefits to quitting smoking that are just as important as decreasing your risk of dying of lung cancer. Smoking also increases your risk for heart disease, stroke, high cholesterol and diabetes.

While smoking is the biggest risk factor for developing lung cancer, other risk factors can include:

  • Hereditary factors (i.e., having a close relative who has had lung cancer)
  • Occupational or domestic exposures to carcinogens, such as asbestos or radon
  • The presence of lung problems, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or interstitial lung disease
  • Exposure to secondhand smoke

It’s never too late to reduce your risk for lung cancer. If you think you’re at risk, talk to your physician about a lung cancer screening and a smoking cessation plan.

Like any health screening, it’s important to discuss the benefits and risks with your primary care physician or pulmonologist. Through that shared decision-making process, the end result may just be peace of mind - knowing your lungs are healthy and you are cancer free.

For more information, visit

Sunayna Bakaya, MD
Featured physician:

Sunayna Bakaya, MD

Medical Director, MemorialCare Imaging Center at Long Beach Medical Center
  • Radiology & Imaging

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