Screening means testing for a disease when there are no symptoms or history of that disease. Doctors recommend a screening test to find a disease early on (early detection), when treatment may work better. Scientists have studied several types of screening tests for lung cancer.
Several tests have been studied to see if they can detect lung cancer early with the goal of decreasing deaths from lung cancer. There is little evidence that chest X-rays or sputum cytology can prevent people from dying from lung cancer. Screening for lung cancer with chest X-rays was once promoted by some experts, but researchers found out that people who were screened did not have a lower death rate than people who were not screened. Promising results have been reported recently that people who had low-dose helical CT scans did have a lower chance of dying from lung cancer than people who had chest X-rays.
Screening also has its downside. Screening tests may find spots (abnormalities) in the lungs. These spots could be cancer or not cancer (benign). More tests may be needed to find out if the spot is a cancer. These tests might include removing a small piece of lung tissue for more testing (biopsy). This means that some people might have a surgical procedure even though they don't have cancer (false positive). These procedures have risks associated with them and can cause anxiety and cost money.
Experts do not know if the benefits of screening (early detection) outweigh the potential harms (false positives), especially for people who do not smoke. For these reasons, experts do not currently recommend for or against lung cancer screening.
Studies are underway that will help provide more information about the effectiveness of more modern screening tests. To learn more, visit the National Lung Screening Trial and the Prostate, Lung, Colorectal and Ovarian Cancer Screening Trial.
*Information from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC).