Official reprint from UpToDate®
www.uptodate.com ©2017 UpToDate, Inc. and/or its affiliates. All Rights Reserved.

Patient education: Lung cancer prevention and screening (Beyond the Basics)

Mark E Deffebach, MD
Linda Humphrey, MD
Section Editors
Joann G Elmore, MD, MPH
David E Midthun, MD
Deputy Editor
Judith A Melin, MA, MD, FACP
0 Find synonyms

Find synonyms Find exact match



Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in both men and women in the United States. The number of people who die from lung cancer each year has risen over the past 25 years and is greater than the number of people who die from breast cancer, prostate cancer, and colorectal cancer combined. Several factors increase the risk of lung cancer, but the most important risk factor is cigarette smoking.

This topic review discusses ways to prevent lung cancer and discusses the benefits and risks of screening for lung cancer. Other topics about lung cancer are available separately. (See "Patient education: Lung cancer risks, symptoms, and diagnosis (Beyond the Basics)" and "Patient education: Non-small cell lung cancer treatment; stage I to III cancer (Beyond the Basics)" and "Patient education: Non-small cell lung cancer treatment; stage IV cancer (Beyond the Basics)" and "Patient education: Small cell lung cancer treatment (Beyond the Basics)".)


Cigarette smoking is responsible for almost 90 percent of cases of lung cancer. Exposure to certain substances, such as asbestos, has also been linked to the development of lung cancer. Exposure to secondhand smoke and other environmental factors such as radon also increase the risk of lung cancer.

The best way to avoid getting lung cancer is not to smoke. Some smokers believe that once they have smoked for a long while, it does little good to quit. However, studies have shown that smokers who quit decrease their risk of lung cancer when compared with those who continue to smoke. Smokers who quit for more than 15 years have an 80 to 90 percent reduction in their risk of lung cancer compared with people who continue to smoke. (See "Patient education: Quitting smoking (Beyond the Basics)".)


Screening is a way to detect a disease in its earliest stages, before a person becomes ill. To be recommended, it must be clear that screening is useful in identifying patients who have the disease in the early stages, and that this discovery can reduce the number of patients who die from the disease.

Some screening exams have improved outcomes by detecting early cancer and reducing the risk of dying with early treatment. Some examples of these cancer screening tests are the Pap smear for detection of cervical cancer in women, and colonoscopy for detection of colon or rectal cancer in people over 50 years old. These exams are now part of routine healthcare in the United States.

Screening for lung cancer with low-dose computed tomography (CT) scan has been shown to decrease the risk of death for people over age 55 years who have a long history of smoking. However, screening is not as important as quitting smoking because quitting smoking will reduce your risks of other cancers and heart disease as well. Also, screening can lead to the need for additional testing in many people who do not have lung cancer and should not be done for people who are not in a high-risk group. Your doctor can help you figure out if screening is a good choice for you (table 1).


Research studies have been done to determine if screening for lung cancer makes sense. In these studies, smokers (who are at the highest risk) are divided into groups. Some groups have screening tests while others have no screening. The groups are then followed over many years. Data are gathered on how many patients in each group are diagnosed with lung cancer, how the cancer was treated, how many patients with cancer were treated, how long the patients with lung cancer survived after treatment, and how many patients died from the disease (mortality).

Low-dose CT scan — A large randomized trial (the National Lung Screening Trial or NLST) in the United States compared the benefits of screening by low-dose computed tomography (CT) scan or chest radiograph in smokers (at least a 30 pack-year history, including current smokers or people who had quit in the previous 15 years). Compared with chest radiograph, low-dose CT scan reduced the risk of death from lung cancer by 20 percent, and the overall risk of death by about 7 percent. However, nearly a quarter of the patients who had yearly CT screening for three years had an abnormal test, and more than 95 percent of the abnormal tests were "false positive" meaning that they did not represent cancer.

False-positive tests require follow-up tests, such as more radiographs or, sometimes, biopsies, and these follow-up tests carry risks such as increasing radiation exposure, and complications from biopsy procedures. Thus, there are important downsides to screening.

Yearly screening with low-dose CT scan is now recommended by many organizations for current or former smokers (who quit within the past 15 years) with a long smoking history. Guidelines vary between organizations related to the specific criteria, including age and smoking history (table 2). UpToDate authors suggest annual screening for patients in good health who are age 55 to 80 years, have a history of smoking at least 30 pack-years, and, if former smokers, quit within the previous 15 years. They also note that patients who wish to avoid the high risk of false-positive results can reasonably choose not to be screened.

Chest radiograph — Although many healthcare providers recommend an annual chest radiograph for patients who smoke, studies have not shown a benefit and we recommend against this practice. In a large study comparing chest radiograph with CT for lung cancer screening, only CT showed reduced risk of death. Current guidelines recommend against screening at-risk subjects by chest radiograph.

Sputum tests — Some studies have looked at the effect of analyzing a patient's sputum for evidence of cancer cells in order to detect lung cancer. So far, no benefit to this approach has been found. Additional studies that use new technologies to examine the sputum are underway.

PET scan — Researchers are looking at a number of other tools in an effort to help identify patients with lung cancer. Positron emission tomography (or PET scanning, which uses a small amount of radioactivity to provide a detailed picture of an organ's function) has been used in combination with CT scanning (PET/CT). However, it involves a higher dose of radiation than CT alone, and benefit has not been shown for screening purposes.

Other studies — Direct visualization of the lungs with bronchoscopy and breath analysis or blood testing for cancer markers are two tests that may be used in future studies.


Patients who smoke are at significantly increased risk of developing lung cancer. The best way to avoid lung cancer is not to smoke. Even long-term smokers benefit from quitting.

Screening with yearly low-dose computed tomography (CT) scan decreased mortality in a randomized trial of patients with increased risk due to smoking. However, many patients had abnormal tests that did not turn out to be lung cancer. Whether or not to be screened should be based on a discussion of risks and benefits with a healthcare provider. Screening annually with low-dose CT scan is suggested for patients who are at highest risk (age 55 to 80 years, a history of smoking at least 30 pack-years, and, if former smokers, have quit within the previous 15 years). If you choose to be screened, it is important to have this done in a center with expertise in lung cancer screening and treatment. Screening with chest radiographs is not recommended.


Your healthcare provider is the best source of information for questions and concerns related to your medical problem.

This article will be updated as needed on our website (www.uptodate.com/patients). Related topics for patients, as well as selected articles written for healthcare professionals, are also available. Some of the most relevant are listed below.

Patient level information — UpToDate offers two types of patient education materials.

The Basics — The Basics patient education pieces answer the four or five key questions a patient might have about a given condition. These articles are best for patients who want a general overview and who prefer short, easy-to-read materials.

Patient education: Lung cancer screening (The Basics)
Patient education: Cancer screening (The Basics)
Patient education: Non-small cell lung cancer (The Basics)
Patient education: Lung cancer (The Basics)
Patient education: Small cell lung cancer (The Basics)

Beyond the Basics — Beyond the Basics patient education pieces are longer, more sophisticated, and more detailed. These articles are best for patients who want in-depth information and are comfortable with some medical jargon.

Patient education: Lung cancer risks, symptoms, and diagnosis (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Non-small cell lung cancer treatment; stage I to III cancer (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Non-small cell lung cancer treatment; stage IV cancer (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Small cell lung cancer treatment (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Quitting smoking (Beyond the Basics)

Professional level information — Professional level articles are designed to keep doctors and other health professionals up-to-date on the latest medical findings. These articles are thorough, long, and complex, and they contain multiple references to the research on which they are based. Professional level articles are best for people who are comfortable with a lot of medical terminology and who want to read the same materials their doctors are reading.

Cancer prevention
Chemoprevention of lung cancer
Cigarette smoking and other possible risk factors for lung cancer
Fluorescence bronchoscopy
Overview of smoking cessation management in adults
Screening for lung cancer
Secondhand smoke exposure: Effects in adults
Women and lung cancer

The following organizations also provide reliable health information.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology

The American Cancer Society

Lung Cancer Alliance


Literature review current through: Nov 2017. | This topic last updated: Tue Feb 16 00:00:00 GMT 2016.
The content on the UpToDate website is not intended nor recommended as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your own physician or other qualified health care professional regarding any medical questions or conditions. The use of this website is governed by the UpToDate Terms of Use ©2017 UpToDate, Inc.

All topics are updated as new information becomes available. Our peer review process typically takes one to six weeks depending on the issue.