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Lung Cancer Screenings Save Lives - Should You Get One?

Lung cancer remains the leading cause of cancer deaths in both men and women. More than 150,000 die each year from the disease. As with any cancer diagnosis, the earlier the detection and treatment, the better the results. Because lung cancer often has no symptoms in its early stages, a screening study is the best way to ensure the highest possible chance for a cure. Studies have found that screening high-risk individuals for lung cancer with a low-dose CT scan leads to 20 percent fewer deaths.

Who should get a lung screening?

It comes down to age and risk factors. You should get the screening if:

  • If you are between the ages of 50-79 and smoked the equivalent of one pack daily for 20 years and have one additional risk factor listed below.
  • You are 55-79 and smoked one pack daily for 30 years.

These risk factors all increase the odds of developing lung cancer:

  • Radon or asbestos exposure
  • A history of cancer or a strong family history of lung cancer
  • Significant secondhand smoke exposure
  • Exposure to diesel fumes
  • Working as a firefighter
  • Having chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or pulmonary fibrosis

If you meet the screening criteria, you may schedule it at one of UPMC in central Pa.'s imaging locations. Talk to your insurance provider about your plan’s coverage. Ask about their requirements for lung cancer screenings.

For patients who may not meet the criteria, your primary care provider may determine one is necessary and write a prescription.

How does a lung cancer screening work?

The actual screening process is simple. There is no contrast dye involved, so there are no injections or preparations. Individuals getting the screening will change into a gown and lie on the CT scanner table. The CT scanner makes a few rotations around the chest and the test is complete. We mail the results to the patient and the referring physician.

For a positive or concerning result, UPMC in central Pa. offers a multidisciplinary approach. It provides rapid evaluation and treatment of pulmonary nodules by a team of skilled specialists. These include thoracic surgeons, pulmonologists and interventional radiologists. This team works together to thoroughly evaluate each nodule. They then develop an individualized plan of care using the most advanced technologies.

What warning signs should you know?

It’s important to see your doctor if you notice any of the following lung cancer symptoms. Some of these can be caused by other ailments or health issues. So, a comprehensive check up with a specialist can put you on the right path.

  • Persistent cough. Allergies, a cold, or liquids going down the “wrong pipe” all prompt a persistent cough. But if yours never seems to go away, it could be a sign of something more serious. Cancer in the airway can irritate your throat and make you cough. When something is there that shouldn’t be, the body tries to expel it. Cancer can also produce mucus, which makes the cough worse.
  • Sudden or ongoing chest, back, or shoulder pain. Any chest pain warrants a call to your doctor and certainly a visit to the ER. Still, patients usually feel pain from a tumor in the area it’s located. If you notice a feeling of tightness, or a sharp pain that worsens with deep breathing, coughing, or laughing, a tumor could be the culprit. If the tumor is to the side, you'll feel pain on your side, if it's toward the back of the chest you'll feel pain in your back. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
  • Shortness of breath can come from a tumor blocking the windpipe. You may be suddenly winded after climbing the stairs, or your daily walk around the block leaves you gasping for breath. If so, it could be you’re out of shape or a symptom of lung cancer. It can also stem from a buildup of fluid that pushes on the lung and leaves you struggling for air. When cancer forms in the lining of the lung, it causes fluid to build up in your chest. Although your chest can hold between three and four liters of fluid, when it completely fills up, the lungs are unable to get enough air.
  • Trouble breathing when you're sitting or lying down can also be a sign.
  • Coughing up blood is never a good sign. Although cancer may not necessarily be the cause of your bloody coughs, this should not go unchecked. 
  • Fatigue. Everyone feels rundown from time to time. But if you find yourself always exhausted despite getting enough sleep and haven't made any changes to your daily routine, it could be a sign of cancer. Weight loss and a lack of appetite also can point to lung cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.  
  • Asthma suffers are not destined for lung cancer. However, if you're diagnosed with asthma beyond childhood, it's a good idea to get screened for lung cancer. While unusual, it's something to keep in the back of your mind if you're a young adult or older and just got a diagnosis. Pulmonologists listen to your lungs, hear wheezing, and typically treat it as asthma. However, it's smart to ensure it’s nothing more like a tumor, which could be causing a blockage.

Since lung cancer often doesn't show symptoms until the later stages, it can progress and spread to other parts of the body. Headaches, dizziness and balance problems, or numbness in the limbs may indicate the cancer has metastasized to the brain or spinal cord. Yellowing of the skin and eyes, also known as jaundice, could be a sign it has spread to the liver. Lumps on the body could mean the disease has spread to the skin or lymph nodes

We do not want to scare you into thinking the worst, but rather to encourage preventive action and control of your own health.

Screenings are a solid diagnostic tool in uncovering the facts. And they’ll help you and your doctor deal with it head on. We have the technology and expertise to support you no matter what the result.

Please visit us online to see if a lung cancer screening is right for you. 

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