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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 to expect

Lung cancer screening can find lung cancer early when treatment works better. 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 test is done with a CT (computed tomography) exam. A CT exam uses an X-ray and a computer to get an in-depth look at your entire chest. The result is an image that provides a clear and detailed picture of your lungs. This exam uses low doses of radiation. You won't need an intravenous (IV) line and contrast won't be used.

Lung cancer screening guidelines

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services recommends lung screening if you're between the ages of 50 and 77 if all the criteria below apply to you:

  • You have no signs or symptoms of lung cancer (coughing up blood, trouble breathing, lots of infections, fatigue and unexpected weight loss).
  • You smoke now or have quit within the last 15 years.
  • You have a history of heavy smoking (20-pack-year history). This means that you have smoked the equivalent of one pack of cigarettes each day for 20 years or two packs each day for 10 years.

Check with your insurance provider if you can get screening until age 80.

Talk to your primary care provider about lung cancer screening.

How to prepare for lung cancer screening

Before lung cancer screening, it is important to let your primary care provider know if you're 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'll remove any metal you're 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. 

Your primary care provider will talk about: 

  • the benefits and risks of a screening
  • your preferences and values around screening
  • the need to and how to quit smoking
  • when the possible results can be and how you're informed of the results
  • possible recommendations
  • need for yearly screenings. 

You’ll also have time to ask any questions you may have before your primary care provider orders the 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're 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're finished your lung cancer screening, you can return to your normal activities.  A board-certified radiologist will look at and interpret your scans. A letter will be mailed to you with results and recommendations.

If you have an Allina Health account, you may see the results before your provider.

A copy of your results will be shared with your primary care provider. A health care provider may call you, if needed.

An Allina Health scheduler will contact you to schedule a screening every year as long as you meet the lung cancer screening criteria.

Lung cancer screening results

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'll 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 haven't already. 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, Allina Health’s lung screening program and 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. 

Allina Health will get a prior-authorization as part of the referral process, but you should still call your insurance provider to understand what your policy will cover.

Low-dose lung screening is approved by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

Some insurance providers do not cover the cost for this test. Call your insurance provider to find out if this test is covered by your health plan. Ask if there are any requirements you need to meet before having the test.

Special note:

  • Medicare will cover the cost of this screening test for people age 50 to 77 years old. Medicare requires that you talk with your primary care provider to see if this test is right for you. 
  • 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