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The facts about lung cancer testing

» Early detection a mixed bag

» Fresh hope

» The bottom line

Common lung cancer symptoms

Although most lung cancers don’t cause symptoms until they’ve spread, see your doctor right away if you’re bothered by any of these conditions:

  • persistent cough
  • chest pain
  • hoarseness
  • weight loss or loss of appetite
  • blood in your spit
  • shortness of breath or wheezing
  • recurring chest infections

Secondhand smoke: A hidden killer

Breathing secondhand smoke is harmful to nonsmokers’ health, no matter how little the exposure. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, even spending a short time in a smoky room can damage your heart, blood flow and blood vessels. Nonsmokers who live or work around smokers increase their risk of developing heart disease by 25 percent to 30 percent and lung cancer by 20 percent to 30 percent. Children are especially vulnerable to the damaging effects because their bodies are still developing. Since conventional ventilation and air-cleaning systems can’t eliminate secondhand smoke, the best solution is to create a totally smoke-free environment.

You should already know that every time you light up a cigarette you’re doing your lungs harm. Statistics point out the grim reality: Smoking is to blame for about 90 percent of lung cancer cases, according to the American Cancer Society. While quitting can greatly reduce the risk, even after 15 smoke-free years, ex-smokers are twice as likely to develop the disease than those who never smoked (though this is no excuse not to quit). People who’ve been exposed to secondhand smoke and those who’ve been in contact with hazardous materials such as radon and asbestos are also vulnerable.

So, if you fall into any of these high-risk categories, should you be screened for lung cancer?

Early detection a mixed bag

Currently, the American Cancer Society and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force don’t recommend routine screening for lung cancer in people who have no symptoms of the disease. That’s because the available tests come with significant disadvantages. For example, chest X-rays and sputum (spit) tests—two standard procedures for detecting lung cancer—don’t usually pick up the disease early enough to improve a person’s chance of survival.

A computed axial tomography (CT) scan called spiral CT may help find early lung cancers, particularly in current and former smokers. But even this method may not help lower your risk of dying from the disease or help you live longer than you would have without screening.

The reason? Spiral CT scans are a little too good at detecting spots or nodules on the lungs, so about half of people undergoing testing will have one or more nodules appear on their scan. But the test can’t tell whether those growths are actually cancer. This not only causes anxiety, but leads to months of follow-up and further testing for many people who will ultimately test negative for lung cancer. In addition, some follow-up tests are risky because they’re invasive. For example, a biopsy needle may cause part of the lung to collapse.

Fresh hope

The benefits of spotting lung cancer at an early stage are further complicated by the fact that some cancers are so slow growing that they’re unlikely to cause symptoms or death. Other cancers are so aggressive that treatment won’t prevent death. Still, an early diagnosis increases the chances that surgery—the best treatment for most types of lung cancer—can remove the cancer. Positron emission tomography (PET) imaging may offer the best hope. PET imaging can tell the difference between benign and malignant tumors as small as one centimeter, according to a new study reported in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

The bottom line

Speak with your doctor about whether your smoking history, exposure to toxins or general level of health would make you a good candidate for screening.

© 2014 Dowden Health Media