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Lung Screening: What To Expect

Lung cancer is the most common cause of cancer-related deaths and second most common cancer in both men and women in the United States, according to MD Anderson Cancer Center. Statistics like this can be enough to make anyone schedule a screening immediately. But, who is recommended to get a screening and what should you expect from your appointment? Banner MD Anderson considers you eligible if you:

  • Are 50-80 years of age
  • Are a current smoker (or former smoker who quit in the past 15 years)
  • Have smoked a pack a day for 20 years or two packs a day for 10 years

What Happens During a Lung Cancer Screening?

Although cancer is a scary word, you don’t need to feel scared about your screening. Jennifer Wrzesinske, MSN-L, RN, senior manager at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center, explains what happens during the screening process:

“In your lung cancer screening, you will undergo low-dose computed tomography (LDCT). You’ll be instructed to lie flat on the exam table, and straps and pillows may be used to help you maintain the correct position and remain still during the exam. You will usually be asked to raise your arms over your head and then the table will move quickly through the scanner to determine the correct starting position for the scans. While you hold your breath for 5-10 seconds, the table will move slowly through the machine for the actual CT scanning. What the radiologist is looking for is evidence of lung nodules, some of which may be cancerous, or an area of abnormal tissue within the lung.

“LDCT screening is painless, noninvasive, and fast, which is important if you have trouble holding your breath.”

What If Something is Detected in My Screening?

It’s important to know that the majority of nodules – 95% or more – don’t represent cancer but instead are areas of scarring in the lung from prior infection or small lymph nodes. You may only need to go back in one year as with other annual health checks to continue the process of screening or follow-up.

Having a trusted professional by your side means understanding what is found and what your next steps ought to be. Banner doctors act with urgency in diagnosing your risk and work with you to develop next steps that give you peace of mind. If your LDCT scan detects a lung nodule or abnormal tissue, Wrzesinske says your physician will likely recommend a follow-up CT scan in 3 or 6 months to check that the nodule didn’t change in size or even go away on its own. If your nodule grows or presents a worry, your doctor may recommend an advanced imaging study (PET) and/or removal of a small piece of the nodule for a biopsy. Your doctor can look at the cells from the biopsy to determine whether the nodule is malignant (cancerous) or benign (non-harmful).

Why You Should Get Screened

Many people put off screenings because they are scared of the results. We hope you can find confidence in knowing that your comfort and well-being is our top priority. Early detection is key. “Finding cancer earlier generally means more treatment options,” says Wrzesinske. “That may include minimally invasive surgery with less lung tissue needing to be removed.”

Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center strongly recommends discussing your lung cancer screening options with your doctor. If you believe you are at risk for lung cancer, speak to your health care provider and schedule a low dose CT lung screening test

Updated: The content of this article was updated as of October 6, 2021. 


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