Saved by the Scan? It's Possible for Long-Term Smokers

October 31, 2017 John Maurice, MD


Quitting smoking may have been one of the hardest –and smartest –things you’ve ever done. But for many, even if that last butt smoldered in the ashtray five or 10 years ago, there’s the lingering concern of whether or not you’ve truly beaten the possibility of lung disease.

“The good news is that your chances of getting lung cancer or other smoking-related diseases decreases after you stop smoking and continues to decline over time. However, that’s not to say that you have completely beaten the risk of illness,” says John Maurice, MD, a board-certified thoracic surgeon and medical director of the thoracic oncology program at St. Joseph Hospital, Orange. “For many current and former smokers, taking a simple lung scan test can mean tremendous peace of mind.”

November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month and it’s a great time to learn about low-dose CT scanning. It’s not for everyone, but a recent study on early detection of lung cancer found that the low-dose CT scan can significantly reduce mortality for those at high risk.

Who exactly is the scan for? It’s only for high-risk candidates, which means you must be between 55 and 80 years of age, have a history of smoking the equivalent of a pack-a-day for 30 years (which could also be smoking two packs-a-day for 15 years, etc.), and be a current smoker or have quit within the last 15 years. At this time, there is not enough evidence to show that screening is recommended for other groups of people.

Before getting your screen, you should know that there is some radiation risk with the low-dose scan, and you may need other procedures or tests. You should talk with a doctor who understands your complete health history before taking the test. Also note that this is much different from a simple chest x-ray, which is not recommended for lung cancer screening.

After the test, you’ll want to discuss all your findings with your doctor. A "positive" result means that the low-dose CT scan shows something abnormal, typically a nodule that is big enough to be concerning. You will need additional scans or other procedures, depending on what your care team recommends. A "negative" result means there were no abnormal findings found by the scan at this time. It does not mean that you will never get lung cancer. Your doctor should discuss when and if you should be tested again. An "indeterminate" result typically means doctors will wait and recommend follow-up imaging at a later date.

If you don’t qualify for the scan, talk to your doctor about other ways to reduce your risk of smoking-related illness. You should absolutely avoid exposure to secondhand smoke. Additionally, you may consider testing your house for radon, an odorless gas linked to lung cancer. A home that tests high for radon should be repaired immediately by a certified radon contractor.

Of course, the best way to reduce your risk is to either stop smoking or continue to live smoking-free. If you smoke, talk to your doctor or follow this helpful advice to get started. You can also visit for more information. 

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.



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