National Cancer Institute


Posted Date: Apr 27, 2014

Expert-reviewed information summary about tests used to detect or screen for lung cancer.

Lung Cancer Screening

What is screening?

Screening is looking for cancer before a person has any symptoms. This can help find cancer at an early stage. When abnormal tissue or cancer is found early, it may be easier to treat. By the time symptoms appear, cancer may have begun to spread.

Scientists are trying to better understand which people are more likely to get certain types of cancer. They also study the things we do and the things around us to see if they cause cancer. This information helps doctors recommend who should be screened for cancer, which screening tests should be used, and how often the tests should be done.

It is important to remember that your doctor does not necessarily think you have cancer if he or she suggests a screening test. Screening tests are given when you have no cancer symptoms.

If a screening test result is abnormal, you may need to have more tests done to find out if you have cancer. These are called diagnostic tests.

General Information About Lung Cancer

Key Points for this Section

  • Lung cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the lung.
  • Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States.
  • Tobacco smoking is the most important risk factor for lung cancer.

Lung cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the lung.

The lungs are a pair of cone-shaped breathing organs inside the chest. The lungs bring oxygen into the body when breathing in and send carbon dioxide out of the body when breathing out. Each lung has sections called lobes. The left lung has two lobes. The right lung, which is slightly larger, has three. A thin membrane called the pleura surrounds the lungs. Two tubes called bronchi lead from the trachea (windpipe) to the right and left lungs. The bronchi are sometimes involved in lung cancer. Small tubes called bronchioles and tiny air sacs called alveoli make up the inside of the lungs. Anatomy of the respiratory system, showing the trachea and both lungs and their lobes and airways. Lymph nodes and the diaphragm are also shown. Oxygen is inhaled into the lungs and passes through the thin membranes of the alveoli and into the bloodstream (see inset).

There are two types of lung cancer: small cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer.

See the following PDQ summaries for more information about lung cancer:

  • Lung Cancer Prevention
  • Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment
  • Small Cell Lung Cancer Treatment

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. It is the most common cancer in men and women combined, after skin cancer.

Tobacco smoking is the most important risk factor for lung cancer.

Anything that increases a person's chance of developing a disease is called a risk factor. The main cause of lung cancer is tobacco use, including smoking cigarettes, cigars, or pipes, now or in the past.

There are other risk factors for lung cancer, but even when taken together, their effect on lung cancer is very small compared to the effect of tobacco smoking. These include the following:

  • Being exposed to second-hand smoke.
  • Being exposed to asbestos, arsenic, chromium, nickel, or other substances in the workplace.
  • Being exposed to radon, which can be found in the home as well as in the workplace.

Lung Cancer Screening

Key Points for this Section

  • Tests are used to screen for different types of cancer.
  • Three screening tests have been studied to see if they decrease the risk of dying from lung cancer.
  • Screening with low-dose spiral CT scans has been shown to decrease the risk of dying from lung cancer in heavy smokers.
  • Screening with chest x-rays or sputum cytology does not decrease the risk of dying from lung cancer.

Tests are used to screen for different types of cancer.

Some screening tests are used because they have been shown to be helpful both in finding cancers early and decreasing the chance of dying from these cancers. Other tests are used because they have been shown to find cancer in some people; however, it has not been proven in clinical trials that use of these tests will decrease the risk of dying from cancer.

Scientists study screening tests to find those with the fewest risks and most benefits. Cancer screening trials also are meant to show whether early detection (finding cancer before it causes symptoms) decreases a person's chance of dying from the disease. For some types of cancer, finding and treating the disease at an early stage may result in a better chance of recovery.

Clinical trials that study cancer screening methods are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about ongoing clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Three screening tests have been studied to see if they decrease the risk of dying from lung cancer.

The following screening tests have been studied to see if they decrease the risk of dying from lung cancer:

  • Chest x-ray: An x-ray of the organs and bones inside the chest. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.
  • Sputum cytology: Sputum cytology is a procedure in which a sample of sputum ( mucus that is coughed up from the lungs) is viewed under a microscope to check for cancer cells.
  • Low- dose spiral CT scan (LDCT scan): A procedure that uses low-dose radiation to make a series of very detailed pictures of areas inside the body. It uses an x-ray machine that scans the body in a spiral path. The pictures are made by a computer linked to the x-ray machine. This procedure is also called a low-dose helical CT scan.

Screening with low-dose spiral CT scans has been shown to decrease the risk of dying from lung cancer in heavy smokers.

A lung cancer screening trial studied people aged 55 years to 74 years who had smoked at least 1 pack of cigarettes per day for 30 years or more. Heavy smokers who had quit smoking within the past 15 years were also studied. The trial used chest x-rays or low-dose spiral CT scans (LDCT) scans to check for signs of lung cancer.

LDCT scans were better than chest x-rays at finding early-stage lung cancer. Screening with LDCT also decreased the risk of dying from lung cancer in current and former heavy smokers.

A Guide is available for patients and doctors to learn more about the benefits and harms of low-dose helical CT screening for lung cancer.

Screening with chest x-rays or sputum cytology does not decrease the risk of dying from lung cancer.

Chest x-ray and sputum cytology are two screening tests that have been used to check for signs of lung cancer. Screening with chest x-ray, sputum cytology, or both of these tests does not decrease the risk of dying from lung cancer.

Risks of Lung Cancer Screening

Key Points for this Section

  • Screening tests have risks.
  • The risks of lung cancer screening tests include the following:
    • Finding lung cancer may not improve health or help you live longer.
    • False-negative test results can occur.
    • False-positive test results can occur.
    • Chest x-rays expose the chest to radiation.
  • Talk to your doctor about your risk for lung cancer and your need for screening tests.

Screening tests have risks.

Decisions about screening tests can be difficult. Not all screening tests are helpful and most have risks. Before having any screening test, you may want to discuss the test with your doctor. It is important to know the risks of the test and whether it has been proven to reduce the risk of dying from cancer.

The risks of lung cancer screening tests include the following:

Finding lung cancer may not improve health or help you live longer.

Screening may not improve your health or help you live longer if you have lung cancer that has already spread to other places in your body.

Some cancers never cause symptoms or become life-threatening, but if found by a screening test, the cancer may be treated. It is not known if treatment of these cancers would help you live longer than if no treatment were given, and treatments for cancer may have serious side effects. Harms of treatment may happen more often in people who have medical problems caused by heavy or long-term smoking.

False-negative test results can occur.

Screening test results may appear to be normal even though lung cancer is present. A person who receives a false-negative test result (one that shows there is no cancer when there really is) may delay seeking medical care even if there are symptoms.

False-positive test results can occur.

Screening test results may appear to be abnormal even though no cancer is present. A false-positive test result (one that shows there is cancer when there really isn't) can cause anxiety and is usually followed by more tests (such as biopsy), which also have risks. A biopsy to diagnose lung cancer can cause part of the lung to collapse. Sometimes surgery is needed to reinflate the lung. Harms of diagnostic tests may happen more often in patients who have medical problems caused by heavy or long-term smoking.

Chest x-rays expose the chest to radiation.

Radiation exposure from chest x-rays may increase the risk of certain cancers, such as breast cancer.

Talk to your doctor about your risk for lung cancer and your need for screening tests.

Changes to This Summary (11/02/2012)

The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.

Changes were made to this summary to match those made to the health professional version.

About This PDQ Summary

About PDQ

Physician Data Query (PDQ) is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries come in two versions. The health professional versions have detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions have cancer information that is accurate and up to date and most versions are also available in Spanish.

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This PDQ cancer information summary has current information about lung cancer screening. It is meant to inform and help patients, families, and caregivers. It does not give formal guidelines or recommendations for making decisions about health care.

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Editorial Boards write the PDQ cancer information summaries and keep them up to date. These Boards are made up of experts in cancer treatment and other specialties related to cancer. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made when there is new information. The date on each summary ("Date Last Modified") is the date of the most recent change.

The information in this patient summary was taken from the health professional version, which is reviewed regularly and updated as needed, by the PDQ Screening and Prevention Editorial Board.

Clinical Trial Information

A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

Clinical trials are listed in PDQ and can be found online at NCI's Web site. Many cancer doctors who take part in clinical trials are also listed in PDQ. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).

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National Cancer Institute: PDQ® Lung Cancer Screening. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Date last modified <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: http://cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/screening/lung/Patient. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>.

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