Lung cancer – Why don’t we look for it?

lung-image-webLung cancer is often discovered at an advanced stage, when it has already spread, this means the survival rate for lung cancer is very low. So why aren’t we doing more about this? We know that smoking causes lung cancers, so why don’t we give smokers an x-ray or a scan to look for cancer earlier? (In the same way we check PSA levels for prostate cancer or offer mammograms for breast cancers). The NHS Screening website has some short videos in a section called “What is Screening?” if you want to know more.

To date, the evidence shows that checking people for lung cancer doesn’t prevent people dying. It is not recommended, even if you are a smoker. Cancer Research UK are funding some very specific trials to try and detect lung cancer in people who are at high risk of getting the disease (people with a strong family history or those who have smoked for 10 years or more, those with existing lung disease etc). We don’t know the results of these studies yet, but you can read more in “Lung cancer research” and “Lung cancer screening“.

There was a recent article on the benefits and risk of lung cancer screening in the American newspaper, The Boston Globe, you can read the article online called “Shades of Grey” which was published on the 9th of November. They discuss a specific type of scan, a CT scan. For a more general (and UK based view) on cancer screening have a read of “Types of screening that can do more harm than good” on the NHS evidence website.

So what does this mean? Using the techniques we have now (CT, X-ray) there is no benefit to screening smokers for lung cancer. If you are a smoker, stop.  If you are concerned about a cough, a hoarse voice or other changes see your GP.  To learn more about the symptoms of lung cancer have a read of the Macmillan website.

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