Lung Cancer Screening and Diagnosis

Key Points

  • Lung cancer screening can help find lung cancer at an early stage when it is easier to treat.
  • At this time, studies have shown that low-dose spiral CT scan is the lung cancer only screening tool that reduces the risk of dying from lung cancer.
  • Lung cancer screening is not right for everyone.

Screening is looking for cancer before a person has any symptoms. This can help find cancer at an early stage when it may be easier to treat. Lung cancer may have spread by the time a person has symptoms. One reason lung cancer is so serious is because it usually is not found until it has spread and is more difficult to treat.

Screening may provide new hope for early detection and treatment of lung cancer. Scientists study screening tests to find those with the fewest risks and most benefits. They look at results over time to see if finding the cancer early decreases a person's chance of dying from the disease.

Three 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. Chest x-ray is no longer recommended for screening.
  • 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: A procedure that uses low-dose radiation to make a series of very detailed pictures of areas inside the body.

Of these tests, studies showed that only low-dose spiral CT scan reduced the risk of dying from lung cancer in high-risk populations. Chest x-ray and sputum cytology are two screening tests that have been used to check for signs of lung cancer but do not decrease the risk of dying from lung cancer.

Resources for You

Considering screening for lung cancer can bring up a variety of questions. Use the resources below to help you understand lung cancer screening.

Should You Get Screened for Lung Cancer?

Lung Cancer Screening Insurance Coverage

2012 American Lung Association Screening Guidelines for Physicians and Patients

This report (released in 2012) offers guidelines to help physicians, their patients and the public in their discussions about lung cancer screening. The American Lung Association’s scientific advisors are currently updating these guidelines.

Full Report

Frequently Asked Questions for Patients

Frequently Asked Questions for Physicians