Doctors generally don't recommend routine lung cancer screening with lung CT scans. Find out why.
If you're a smoker or former smoker, you may worry about your risk of lung cancer. At this time, there's no proven way to effectively screen for lung cancer in current and former smokers. But researchers are studying ways to identify lung cancers early - when they're more likely to be cured. One focus of research is computerized tomography (CT) scanning of the lungs.
Whether lung CT scans are helpful when it comes to diagnosing early lung cancer has yet to be proved. Here, David Midthun, M.D., a consultant in the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., explains the pros and cons of using lung CT scans for lung cancer screening.
With some cancers, doctors encourage people to get regular screening. Why is it different with lung cancer?
Screening for breast, cervical and colon cancers has been shown to reduce your risk of dying of these diseases when compared with those who don't get screened. Doctors recommend screening for these cancers because doing so has proved beneficial for a group of people in the study setting. This same standard should be met for lung cancer before screening is broadly recommended.
Although there have been hopeful developments with CT scan screening for lung cancer, at this point there isn't convincing evidence that screening results in more good than harm. In fact, a study of current and former smokers showed that lung CT scan screening detected three times as many cancers as expected. Screening also resulted in 10 times as many surgeries as expected and did not reduce the number of people with advanced cancer or the expected deaths from lung cancer. So the bottom line is lung CT scan screening did not appear to help.
Isn't all cancer screening good? Isn't it better to know that you have lung cancer than to not know?
According to the studies, lung CT scans help doctors diagnose more lung cancers, but this isn't necessarily a good thing. Diagnosing more cancer is only beneficial if the number of advanced stage cancers is reduced and, as a result, fewer people die of lung cancer. So far, studies have shown that lung CT scans do not decrease the number of advanced stage cancers found or decrease risk of dying of lung cancer.
Simply diagnosing more cancer may not be beneficial. Some of these cancers are so slow growing (indolent) that they would never have caused symptoms or death. Others are so aggressive that treatment would not change the outcome.