Learn more about preventive screenings.

Lung cancer offers few early symptoms, making screening vital


Lung cancer offers few early symptoms, making screening vital

Lung cancer is one of the deadlines forms of cancer – accounting for 25 percent of all cancer deaths in America. More people die from lung cancer than breast, colorectal and prostate cancers combined.
One reason lung cancer is so deadly is because there are typically no symptoms until the disease has advanced to the point where it has spread beyond the lungs, says radiation oncologist Dr. Nicole Anderson, who provides care at MUSC Health Tidelands Health Radiation Therapy Center, part of the Tidelands Health Cancer Care Network.
The Tidelands Health Cancer Care Network is our region’s most comprehensive provider of cancer care and the only cancer care provider in our area affiliated with a National Institutes of Cancer-designated cancer center, MUSC Health’s Hollings Cancer Center.

Few early symptoms

Because there are no nerve endings in the lungs, people typically won’t feel any pain when a nodule forms, Dr. Anderson says.

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“When there’s a small lung nodule, quite often the body compensates without offering any indication of a problem to the patient,” she says. “Unfortunately, that means patients don’t become aware of the cancer until it is more advanced.”
When they do occur, symptoms can include:

  • Shortness of breath or wheezing
  • Tiredness and weakness
  • Unexplained weight loss and lack of appetite
  • A persistent cough that gets worse over time
  • Chest pain that gets worse when you take a deep breath, cough or laugh
  • Arm or shoulder pain
  • Coughing up blood or rust-colored phlegm
  • Repeated episodes of pneumonia or bronchitis

The earlier cancer is detected, the better the outcome, which is why annual lung cancer screenings are so important for people at high risk, Dr. Anderson says.

Risk factors

Most cases of lung cases can be attributed to smoking cigarettes. Other risk factors include:

  • Exposure to second-hand smoke
  • Exposure to asbestos, arsenic, chromium, radon or other cancer-causing chemicals
  • A family history of lung cancer
  • Air pollution

Lung cancer screenings are conducted using low-dose computed tomography. A series of X-rays are taken of your lungs, which are digitally combined to create a detailed picture used to identify any abnormalities. The test is noninvasive and painless.

Eligibility criteria

To qualify for a lung cancer screening, you must meet these criteria:

  • Be between the ages of 50 to 80 years old
  • Have a 20-pack year history of smoking cigarettes (one pack per day for 20 years, two packs per day for 10 years, etc.)
  • Be a current smoker or have smoked within the past 15 years

Although lung cancer is more common in people over 65, it’s not “an old person’s cancer anymore,” Dr. Anderson says, adding that she routinely sees patients in their 30s with advanced lung cancer.

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“Nobody ever thinks it’s going to be them until it’s too late. Even if you’ve smoked for years, it’s not too late to quit. There’s plenty of data that say quitting will decrease the likelihood of developing lung cancer down the road.
“You can only help yourself if you quit smoking. That’s step one. Step two is to undergo regular screenings,” she says.
Many insurance providers will cover lung cancer screenings. To schedule a screening, speak with your care provider. A physician referral is required to receive a lung cancer screening at Tidelands Health. 

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