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Wednesday December 17, 2014

Savvy Living

Savvy Senior

Who Should Be Screened for Lung Cancer?

What can you tell me about lung cancer screenings? My husband was a long-time smoker, but quit many years ago. I’m wondering if he should be checked out.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (PSTF) is an independent panel of medical experts that advises the government on health policies. The PSTF says that your husband is at high risk for lung cancer and recommends screening if he is between the ages of 55 and 80, is a current smoker or quit within the last 15 years and has a smoking history of at least 30 pack-years. Pack-years are determined by multiplying the number of packs he smoked daily by the number of years he smoked.

Lung cancer screenings are recommended annually for those at risk. So, you will be happy to know that screenings will be covered by all private health insurance plans starting in 2015 and by Medicare starting in February or March of 2015. The Medicare screening will only cover high-risk beneficiaries through age 74.

Lung cancer kills around 160,000 Americans each year making it the most deadly of all possible cancers. In fact, more people die of lung cancer than of colon, breast and prostate cancers combined.

Lung cancer occurs predominantly in older adults. About two out of every three people diagnosed with lung cancer are 65 or older and the risk of lung cancer peaks at age 71.

Lung Cancer Screening

The goal of annual screenings is to detect cancer before symptoms appear. The five-year survival rate among people with lung cancer when it is diagnosed in its earliest stage is 77%, versus only 4% to 25% for people whose cancer has spread.

To get screened for lung cancer, your husband will need a low-dose computed tomography (CT) chest scan. A CT scan is a painless, noninvasive test that will generate detailed three-dimensional images of his lungs.

For the screening, he will be asked to lie on a table that slides through the center of a large, doughnut shaped scanner that rotates around him to take images. Each scan takes just a few seconds, during which time he’ll be asked to hold his breath, since movement can produce blurred images. The entire procedure takes only a few minutes from start to finish.

You also need to be aware that a lung CT screening has its downsides. First, it exposes you to some radiation – about the same as a mammography but more than that of a chest X-ray. Second, lung CT screenings aren’t foolproof. They produce a high rate of false-positive results, which means they frequently detect small spots (abnormalities) on the lungs that are suggestive of cancer but aren’t cancerous. These false alarms lead to more testing and sometimes lung biopsies, as well as unnecessary worry and anxiety.


Since smoking causes 80% to 90% of all lung cancer cases, the best way to avoid lung cancer is to not smoke. If you do smoke, quit. Even if you’ve been a smoker for a long time, quitting now still decreases your risk. Other factors that can increase the risk of lung cancer include exposure to secondhand smoke, radon, asbestos and other toxic chemicals or fumes.

For more information on lung cancer screenings, call the American Lung Association at 800-586-4872 or use their online tool (LungCancerScreeningSavesLives.org) that will help you to determine if your husband needs to be screened.

Savvy Living is written by Jim Miller, a regular contributor to the NBC Today Show and author of "The Savvy Living” book. Any links in this article are offered as a service and there is no endorsement of any product. These articles are offered as a helpful and informative service to our friends and may not always reflect this organization’s official position on some topics. Jim invites you to send your senior questions to: Savvy Living, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070.

Published December 12, 2014

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