Lung screening can help at-risk patients identify lung cancer in its early stages when treatment success rates are higher. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends a yearly lung screening if you are between 50 and 80 years old and have a tobacco use exposure of one pack per day for 20 years and are still smoking or quit within the last 15 years.

Even if you don't meet all the USPSTF's requirements for yearly lung cancer screening, you may still consider a periodic screening if you:

  • Have smoked regularly
  • Have been exposed to other lung cancer risk factors, including secondhand smoke, radon, and other carcinogens
  • Have a family history of lung cancer

If you're concerned that you're at risk, talk to your doctor about screening for lung cancer even if you don't have lung cancer symptoms.

What Is Lung Cancer Screening?

Lung cancer screening is done with a low-dose CT scan that creates a 3D picture of the lungs. Your doctor will examine the images for irregularities that could be lung cancer. If they find something concerning, they may perform other tests or a biopsy to evaluate the irregularities and see if they're cancerous.

Unlike a diagnostic test or biopsy, a lung screening is a preventative measure performed before one has obvious symptoms of lung cancer in the hopes of catching the disease early.

The Importance of Early Detection of Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is the deadliest cancer in the U.S. for both women and men, even though it's only the country’s third-most common cancer. One reason for the disparity is that lung cancer usually doesn't cause noticeable symptoms until the situation has become serious. The earlier that lung cancer is detected, the better patient outcomes usually are.

Who is Eligible for Lung Cancer Screenings?

For high-risk patients, yearly lung screenings save lives. The procedure is simple and non-invasive. Besides quitting smoking, it's one of the best things you can do to protect yourself from lung cancer. You are eligible for yearly screening if you meet the following criteria:

  • Are between 50 and 80 years old
  • Currently smoke or quit smoking within the last 15 years
  • Have at least a 20 "pack-year" history of smoking. Calculate your pack-year history by multiplying the number of packs you smoke each day by the number of years you've smoked.

Learn more about lung cancer screening eligibility.

The Lung Screening Program at Mass General

Our lung screening program makes it easy to get checked for even the smallest lung tumors, increasing the odds of early detection and a better prognosis. We use low-dose CT (LDCT) scans to produce high-quality images of the lungs without needing contrast dye or fasting.

Get the details on our lung screening program or contact us to learn more:

Lung Screening Program
Phone: 617-724-4254

A low-dose CT to screen for lung cancer is available in Boston, Chelsea, Waltham, Danvers and Newton.

What Is a Low-Dose CT Scan (LDCT)?

A low-dose CT scan, or LDCT, is a kind of computer-assisted imaging that takes highly detailed pictures inside your body. The CT machine will use minimal amounts of X-ray radiation to take multiple images of your lungs. The images they produce help doctors look for irregularities that may be cancerous.

Getting an LDCT scan is painless and takes only a couple of minutes. You'll lie on your back inside the machine while it takes the pictures. Lie as still as possible during the scan to ensure the images aren't blurry. Afterward, you're free to go about your day as normal.

Preparing for an LDCT Scan

Preparing for your LDCT scan lung screening is easy. You should come to the hospital half an hour before your appointment wearing comfortable, loose-fitting clothes. You can eat and drink normally—there’s no need to fast. We recommend leaving valuables at home. Children can't come into the exam room, so you'll need someone to watch them at the hospital or at home.

What Does a Low-Dose Lung CT Scan Show?

Low-dose CT lung cancer screens produce highly detailed images. Each image shows a thin section (sometimes called a "slice") of your lungs. They allow doctors to look, layer by layer, for signs of lung cancer.

The images from the LDCT scan will indicate one of three results:

  • Indeterminate: The scan was inconclusive or the images weren't clear. You may need to get another scan or speak to your doctor.
  • Negative: In this context, negative is a good thing. It means the images didn't reveal any abnormalities. Based on your history and risk factors, your doctors will determine when you should have your next lung screening. 
  • Positive: A positive result means the lung screening showed something abnormal. It could be lung nodules, lung cancer in its early stages, or something else entirely. Positive results from the lung screening don't always mean cancer, but you'll probably need to do more testing to determine the nature of the abnormality.

Positive results usually mean you'll need further examination. Depending on what the image reveals, you may need additional scans (such as a repeat CT scan or a PET scan) or you may need to biopsy the abnormal tissue. These tests will help your doctor diagnose the tissue as lung cancer or something else. Further steps will depend on the diagnosis.

FAQs About Lung Cancer Screening

It's normal to be worried about lung cancer, especially if you're at risk, but don't let fear prevent you from taking action. Lung screening is painless, easy, and can save your life. Learning about lung screening can make you more confident. Below are some common questions about lung screening, or you can consult our patient FAQ on lung screening.

Who Should Be Screened for Lung Cancer?

Current guidelines suggest that routine lung cancer screening is a good idea for anyone who:

  • Is between 50 and 80 years old
  • Currently smokes or has quit within the last 15 years
  • Has a smoking history of 20 or more pack-years (packs per day X number of years smoking)

What Are the Risks of Low-Dose CT Lung Cancer Screening?

The primary risk from lung screening is radiation exposure. Routine lung cancer screening is much less risky than standard CT scans, but radiation could still be harmful, and regular radiation exposure adds up. However, the danger of lung cancer far outweighs the threat from radiation in high-risk patients.

Is Lung Cancer Curable If Detected Early?

Whether or not lung cancer is curable depends on multiple factors, and there's no easy answer. However, if the disease is caught in its earliest stages, patients have the best chances of survival because the smaller and less extensive the tumors are, the more likely lung cancer is to be curable.

How Is Early-Stage Lung Cancer Detected?

Early-stage lung cancer can be detected with CT scans. In patients who don't undergo regular screening for lung cancer, early-stage diagnoses are usually the result of a doctor noticing a tumor on a test performed for another reason, such as a chest X-ray.

Does a Chest X-ray Show Lung Cancer?

A chest X-ray can show lung cancer in some cases. In patients who are diagnosed with early-stage lung cancer and aren't getting lung screenings, one of the ways that cancer is discovered is from chest X-rays for an unrelated problem. However, CT scans have been proven to be much more reliable at finding small lung cancers than chest X-rays and so chest X-rays are not recommended to screen for lung cancer.

How Long Can You Have Lung Cancer Without Knowing?

Without screening in high-risk patients, it's common for lung cancer tumors to progress undetectably to advanced-stage lung cancer before patients or their doctors are aware of the tumor. That's because many lung cancer patients don't experience any symptoms in the disease's early stages. If you're at increased risk of developing lung cancer, periodic screening can help catch lung cancer while it's easier to treat.

How Early Can Lung Cancer Be Diagnosed?

The tools for lung cancer screening are sophisticated. With regular lung screening, it's possible to identify some kinds of lung cancer at the earliest possible stage (stage IA).