The new test every heavy smoker 55 and older should ask their doctor about

Korin Miller
There's a low-dose CT scan designed to catch lung cancer early, when it’s more likely to be curable. (Photo: Getty Images)
There's a low-dose CT scan designed to catch lung cancer early, when it’s more likely to be curable. (Photo: Getty Images)

August 1 is World Lung Cancer Day. This year’s focus is about highlighting new lifesaving advancements in lung cancer.

Lung cancer is the leading cancer killer of both men and women in the U.S. More than half of people with lung cancer die within a year of being diagnosed, according to the American Lung Association (ALA), but, despite the cancer’s high mortality rate, early screening tools haven’t been available to help at-risk patients. That recently changed.

A new test called a low-dose CT scan is designed to catch lung cancer early, when it’s more likely to be curable. If lung cancer is detected before it spreads, the chances of a patient surviving five years or more increases to 56 percent, according to ALA data. When lung cancer is detected in later stages, the five-year survival rate is just five percent.

“We now have data from two very large studies showing that this screening test can decrease mortality from lung cancer,” Myrna Godoy, MD, PhD, associate professor in the department of diagnostic radiology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Anything we can do to improve the high mortality of lung cancer patients is important.”

Raymond Casciari, MD, a pulmonologist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, Calif., agrees. “With a low-dose CT scan, you can pick up lung cancers much earlier than the standard diagnostic tests, like X-rays and blood tests,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “The problem with lung cancer is that once you have the symptoms, it’s usually too late.”

Unfortunately, many people aren’t even aware that this potentially lifesaving screening test exists. Here’s what you need to know.

How does the test work?

A low-dose CT scan is an X-ray that takes several photos of your body while you lay on a table that slides in and out of the machine. The images it takes are then combined to create a detailed picture of your lungs.

“It is a painless and non-invasive procedure that takes less than 20 seconds,” Matthew Schabath, PhD, a cancer epidemiologist at Moffitt Cancer Center, tells tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “In most cases, you will not need to change out of your clothes.”

Who should get the screening test?

The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends annual screening for lung cancer with a low-dose CT scan in adults ages 55 to 80 years, who have a “30 pack-year” smoking history (which is calculated by multiplying the number of packs of cigarettes smoked per day by the number of years the person has smoked) and currently smoke, or have quit smoking within the past 15 years.

The American Lung Association has an online quiz you can take to see if you’re eligible for screening, or you can talk to your primary care physician.

Is it covered by insurance?

The scan itself is covered without a co-pay if you meet the high-risk criteria, although your insurance may charge you a co-pay if the facility or provider who gives you the scan is out of your network.

Doctors stress that, much like mammograms, Pap tests, and colonoscopies, the low-dose CT scan can be lifesaving. “If you think you need it, talk to your doctor,” Casciari says. “This test has hugely improved survival rates.”

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