A screening test is generally performed as a preventative measure to detect a potential health problem or disease in a person who is yet to have signs or symptoms. The purpose of screening is to detect a disease early, reduce the risk of disease or detect a condition early enough to treat it completely.
There is a screening test for lung cancer. However, not everyone can opt for it. Your doctor may recommend a screening test for you if they think you are at a high risk of developing cancer so that they can detect your cancer on time.
What is the screening test for cancer and when should you undergo it?
You lie down on a table of a CT machine, and the table passes through the center of a large CT machine. The CT machine takes detailed X-rays of your chest.
Compared to a conventional CT, the LDCT for lung cancer uses approximately five times less radiation. While a conventional CT uses at least 100 X-rays, an LDCT uses only 15 X-rays.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends taking a screening test with a low-dose CT scan if you fulfill the following specified criteria:
- You should be between 50 and 80 years old.
- You should be asymptomatic, which means you should not have any of the signs and symptoms of lung cancer as mentioned earlier.
- You should
Medicare and other insurance companies usually cover this screening test. Read your insurance policy carefully to know whether they cover this and, if so, what are the terms and conditions.
What happens after the screening test for lung cancer?
If your low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) detects any abnormality in your lung, which is more likely to be lung cancer, your doctor will likely direct you toward a team of experts. These experts will explain the report to you and about the number of follow-ups you might need to have after the initial screening.
The experts will also ask you to undergo additional tests and procedures, such as a CT scan and biopsy, to confirm the diagnosis. A biopsy is a surgical procedure to remove a small sample of lung tissue.
What are the possible risks of a lung cancer screening test?
Whether to go for a lung cancer screening test depends a lot on the benefits the test provides as compared to the risks it carries. The possible risks include
- False-positive result: It may happen that you may not have cancer but the low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) test comes out to be positive for lung cancer. This is called a false-positive result. This may make you take unnecessary cancer medications and have surgeries that were not needed.
- Overdiagnosis: Overdiagnosis means finding and treating non-aggressive cancer that would not otherwise have caused problems. This may lead to treatments that would have been otherwise unnecessary.
- Radiation: Although LDCT exposes you to a low amount of radiation, very little is known about its potential harms. Repeated LDCT tests can itself cause cancer in otherwise healthy people.
Given the above risks, your doctor will recommend a screening test for lung cancer depending on your age, smoking history and fitness or willingness to undergo the surgery. Hence, talk to your doctor first if you are thinking of undergoing the test.
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Who Should Be Screened for Lung Cancer?" https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/lung/basic_info/screening.htm
Swedish Health Services: "Low-Dose CT Scan for Lung Cancer Screening." https://www.swedish.org/services/thoracic-surgery/our-services/lung-cancer-screening-program/low-dose-ct-scan-for-lung-cancer-screening