Just 18% of Americans who need lung cancer screenings get them

Image: American Cancer Society

A new study from the American Cancer Society (ACS) found few adults in the U.S. were up-to-date with recommended lung cancer screenings. 

ACS researchers found up-to-date lung cancer screenings were only prevalent in about 18% of adults who were recommended to get them.

Notably, the screening uptake was lower in adults without health insurance, and also in Southern states that typically have a higher lung cancer death rate. 

"Early detection with (lung cancer screenings) is critical because lung cancer symptoms often don't appear in the early stages, but when diagnosed and treated early, survival is markedly improved," said Dr. Priti Bandi, who is the Scientific Director of cancer risk factors and screening surveillance research at the American Cancer Society.

She added that this research did show increased screening rates from previous years, and stressed that an expansion of healthcare access and screening facilities can help improve early detection and treatment for lung cancer. 

In the United States, lung cancer is the second most common cancer. It’s also the leading cause of death from cancer, according to ACS. 

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Screening for lung cancer

Lung cancer can be detected early with help from a low-dose CT scan for people at higher risk. 

High risk individuals are considered the following: 

  • Aged between 50-80 years old
  • Have a 20 pack-year or greater smoking history
  • Currently smoke, or quit less than 15 years ago 

A pack-year is equal to smoking one pack (or about 20 cigarettes) per day for a year, the ACS explained. For example, a person could have a 20 pack-year history by smoking one pack a day for 20 years, or by smoking two packs a day for 10 years.

A low-dose CT scan can help find abnormal areas in the lungs that may be cancer. Research has shown that unlike chest x-rays, yearly scans to screen people at higher risk of lung cancer can save lives.

For high risk individuals, a yearly screening for lung cancer with a low-dose CT scan is what’s recommended by the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) and the ACS.

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Lung cancer symptoms

Most lung cancers do not cause any symptoms until they have spread, but some people with early lung cancer do have symptoms, according to ACS. 

The most common symptoms of lung cancer are:

  • A cough that does not go away or gets worse
  • Coughing up blood or rust-colored sputum (spit or phlegm)
  • Chest pain that is often worse with deep breathing, coughing, or laughing
  • Hoarseness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling tired or weak
  • Infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia that don’t go away or keep coming back
  • New onset of wheezing

If lung cancer spreads to other parts of the body, it may cause: 

  • Bone pain (like pain in the back or hips) 
  • Nervous system changes (such as headache, weakness or numbness of an arm or leg, dizziness, balance problems, or seizures), from cancer spread to the brain  
  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice), from cancer spread to the liver 
  • Swelling of lymph nodes (collection of immune system cells) such as those in the neck or above the collarbone 

This story was reported from Detroit.