Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center

Spotting Lung Cancer Early Can Save Lives

An expert explains who should be screened and how the test works.

CT Lung 2
CT screening can see smaller objects and catch lung cancer at stage 2 or earlier, which can make a big difference in terms of therapies and treatment options.

Lung cancer is the No. 1 cause of cancer deaths, and CT lung cancer screening can help reduce that risk. The National Lung Screening Trial compared CT screenings to standard chest X-rays and found that CT screenings reduced the lung cancer death rate by 20 percent. That’s because CT screening can see smaller objects and catch lung cancer at stage 2 or earlier, which can make a big difference in terms of therapies and treatment options.  

Cecelia Brewington, M.D., Medical Director of the CT Lung Cancer Screening Program at UT Southwestern, answers some key questions about CT lung cancer screening.

“During the exam you’ll lie on a table while the CT scanner takes images. It takes about two minutes and there’s no IV or pain involved. As long as you don’t have any metal on your clothing you don’t even need to change into a hospital gown.”

Cecelia Brewington, M.D., Medical Director of the CT Lung Cancer Screening Program at UT Southwestern

Who should get CT lung cancer screening?

People without any symptoms of lung cancer age 55 and older who have a 30-year history of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, or the equivalent (two packs a day for 15 years, a half-pack a day for 60 years, etc.), should be screened.

Why shouldn’t all current or former smokers get screened? 

The greatest benefit is seen in people who have smoked for a long time and have a higher risk of lung cancer.

How does the test work?

Before your first screening, you’ll have an appointment with a doctor or physician assistant to discuss your smoking history and smoking cessation resources and to address any concerns you have about the test.

During the exam you’ll lie on a table for our about two minutes while the CT scanner takes images. There’s no IV or pain involved. As long as you don’t have any metal on your clothing you don’t even need to change into a hospital gown.

What happens after the test?

If your scan is clear, you’ll most likely be scheduled for a repeat scan every year, until you reach 80 years of age or 15 years as a non-smoker. 

If something shows up on your scan, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have lung cancer. We take more steps to make a determination. Sometimes, the scans can show nodules from infection or exposure to allergens. Your doctor may want to repeat your scan in three or six months to make sure the spot isn’t growing. 

It’s also possible that your scan will pick up another health problem, like coronary artery calcification, plaque in the cardiac arteries, or an aortic aneurysm. In that case, you can follow up with the appropriate specialist.

Does insurance cover screening?

Yes, most private health insurance companies and Medicare cover CT lung cancer screenings for people who meet the criteria. 

Where can I get more information about the test?

Call the Simmons Cancer Center Answer Line at 1-833-722-6237 or email CancerAnswerLine@utsouthwestern.edu.

Call the Cancer Answer Line at 1-833-722-6237.