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Lung cancer screening

Comprehensive screening for people at risk for lung cancer

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among both men and women. More people die of lung cancer each year than of colon, breast and prostate cancers combined.  

Smoking is the most common risk factor for developing lung cancer. Eight out of 10 lung cancers are caused by smoking. 

At Allina Health, we believe in taking a holistic, proactive approach to your health and wellness. This is why we encourage all of our patients who are at risk for developing lung cancer to have lung cancer screenings every year. 

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What is lung cancer screening?

Lung cancer screening is done to find lung cancer early when it is most treatable. It starts with visiting your primary care provider, who will work with you to decide if lung cancer screening is right for you. To help you decide, review our lung cancer screening decision-making tool with your provider. 

Your provider will talk with you about the importance of:    

  • following recommendations after the screening    

  • quitting smoking    

  • sticking to a yearly plan for screening.  

The screening is done with computed tomography (CT), which uses special equipment to take pictures of your body. This screening will provide more detail than a chest X-ray. Your primary care provider will use the pictures to look for lung cancer. X-ray is not an effective screening for lung cancer. 

Lung cancer screening guidelines

Your primary care provider’s recommendation for lung cancer screening will depend primarily on your age and whether you smoke. Lung cancer screening is recommended if: 

  • You are between the ages of 50 and 80. 

  • You smoke now and have quit within the last 15 years. 

  • You have a “20 pack-year” history of heavy smoking. This means you have smoked one pack of cigarettes a day for 20 years. 

  • You have no signs or symptoms of lung cancer. 

  • Your primary care provider has decided you do not have new respiratory (breathing) symptoms.  

  • You are willing to get screened every year. 

Find a lung cancer screening center near you

How to prepare for lung cancer screening

Before lung cancer screening, it is important to let your primary care provider know if you are experiencing any symptoms of a respiratory infection or if you have recently had a respiratory infection. Your lung cancer screening may be rescheduled until a month has passed since your symptoms cleared up, so that any potential symptoms do not affect the test results. 

You will need to remove any metal you are wearing before the test such as jewelry, hearing aids, glasses or dentures. It is important not to wear clothing with metal clasps, snaps or buttons. 

When you arrive for your test, your primary care provider will talk about: 

  • the risks and benefits of the test 

  • the importance of following the yearly screening plan 

  • quitting smoking (if needed) 

  • following the recommendations after the test. 

You will also have time to ask any questions you may have before your test. 

Benefits of discovering lung cancer early

The primary benefit of lung cancer screening is that you may detect lung cancer early and increase your chance of survival.  If you are at high risk of developing lung cancer, having regular lung cancer screening can also reduce your anxiety about wondering if you have the disease. 

What to expect after lung cancer screening

Once you are finished your lung cancer screening, you can return to your normal activities.  A board-certified radiologist will look at and interpret your scans. 

Your care provider from the screening location will receive the test results. They will talk with you about the results and determine the next steps in your screening plan. 

A copy of your results will be shared with your primary care provider. 

Lung cancer screening results

Your primary care provider will talk about the results of your lung cancer screening with you. Your test results will be one of the following: 

  • no abnormalities were discovered (negative) 

  • lung nodules (abnormal spots) were found 

  • other health problems were found with your lungs  

If your screening result is negative, you will be asked to follow a yearly screening schedule to monitor the condition of your lungs for signs of cancer. Your primary care provider will also talk with you about quitting smoking, if you have not already done so. They will provide you with quitting smoking resources that can help. 

If your screening result shows that lung nodules were found, you may need to have more testing. This may be another screening test, a positron emission tomography (PET) scan or a biopsy. The goal is to determine whether you have lung cancer or not. Most nodules are not cancer. At least 3 or 4 out of every 100 lung nodules are cancer. Learn about our lung nodule program and the care we provide. 

If you have lung cancer, your primary care provider will bring together a team that will work with you to develop a treatment plan. This plan may include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and other possible treatments. Learn how Allina Health approaches lung cancer care

If your screening result found other health problems with your lungs, you may need to have more testing to determine the type and extent of that problem. 

Insurance coverage

It is important to understand your health care benefits before having this test. 

Medicare will cover the cost of this screening test for people age 55 to 77 years old. Medicare requires that you talk with your primary care provider to see if this test is right for you. 

Low-dose lung screening is approved by the Food and Drug Administration. However, some insurance providers do not cover the cost for this test. Please call your insurance provider to find out if this test is covered by your health plan. Be sure to ask if there are any requirements you need to meet before having the test. 

If your insurance provider does not cover the cost for this test, please talk to your primary care provider. You may qualify for a discount. 

Related links

Source: Allina Health Cancer Institute
Reviewed by: Allina Health Cancer Institute

First published: 6/4/2019
Last reviewed: 10/6/2021

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