Lung Cancer (non-small cell) Overview

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Early Detection, Diagnosis, and Staging TOPICS

Can non-small cell lung cancer be found early?

It is often hard to find lung cancer early. Most people with early lung cancer do not have any symptoms, so only a small number of lung cancers are found at an early stage. When lung cancer is found early, it is often because of tests that were being done for something else.

Screening for lung cancer

Screening is the use of tests or exams to find a disease like cancer in people who don’t have any symptoms of that disease. Doctors have looked for many years for a test that could find lung cancer early and help patients live longer.

In recent years, a large clinical trial, known as the National Lung Screening Trial (NLST), found that in some people at high risk of lung cancer (due to their history of smoking), a screening test known as a low-dose CT (LDCT) scan could lower the chance of dying from lung cancer.

Still, screening with LDCT scans also has some downsides. One drawback is that this test also finds a lot of things that turn out not to be cancer but that still need to be tested to be sure. LDCTs also expose people to a small amount of radiation with each test. These factors, and others, need to be taken into account by people and their doctors who are thinking about whether screening with LDCT scans is right for them.

Based on the results of the NLST, the American Cancer Society has developing screening guidelines for lung cancer. People who are at higher risk for lung cancer, such as current or former smokers, might want to discuss these guidelines with their doctor to see if screening might be right for them. For more details about the American Cancer Society’s lung cancer screening guidelines, see our document Lung Cancer Prevention and Early Detection.


Last Medical Review: 08/18/2014
Last Revised: 12/12/2014