Can Small Cell Lung Cancer Be Found Early?

In the United States, lung cancer is the second most common cancer in both men and women. It’s also the leading cause of death from cancer.

Lung cancer can be serious. However, some people with early stage lung cancer can be successfully treated. This is because tests and treatments for cancer are being studied and improved. If lung cancer is found at an earlier stage when it is small and before it has spread, people have a better chance of living longer.

Current and former smokers are at a higher risk of getting lung cancer as they get older. If they quit, smokers can lower their risk of getting and dying from lung cancer.

Usually symptoms of lung cancer do not appear until the disease is already at an advanced stage, when it is very hard to cure. Even when lung cancer does cause symptoms, many people may mistake them for other problems, such as an infection or long-term effects from smoking. This may delay the diagnosis.

Some lung cancers are found early by accident as a result of tests for other medical conditions. For example, lung cancer may be found by tests done for other reasons in people with heart disease, pneumonia, or other lung conditions. A small number of these people do very well and may be cured of lung cancer.

Screening is the use of tests or exams to find a disease in people who don’t have symptoms. Small cell lung cancer tends to spread very early, so most lung cancers that are found before they have spread are the non-small cell type. Regular chest x-rays have been studied for lung cancer screening, but they did not help most people live longer. In recent years, a test known as a low-dose CAT scan or CT scan (LDCT) has been studied in people at a higher risk of getting lung cancer. LDCT scans can help find abnormal areas in the lungs that may be cancer. Research has shown that using LDCT scans to screen people at higher risk of lung cancer saved more lives compared to chest x-rays. For higher risk people, getting yearly LDCT scans before symptoms start helps lower the risk of dying from lung cancer.

The National Lung Screening Trial

The National Lung Screening Trial (NLST) was a large clinical trial that looked at using LDCT of the chest to screen for lung cancer. CT scans of the chest provide more detailed pictures than chest x-rays and are better at finding small abnormal areas in the lungs. Low-dose CT of the chest uses lower amounts of radiation than a standard chest CT and does not use intravenous (IV) contrast dye.

The NLST compared LDCT of the chest to chest x-rays in people at high risk of lung cancer to see if these scans could help lower the risk of dying from lung cancer. The study included more than 50,000 people ages 55 to 74 who were current or former smokers and were in fairly good health. To be in the study, they had to have at least a 30 pack-year history of smoking. A pack-year is the number of cigarette packs smoked each day multiplied by the number of years a person has smoked. Someone who smoked a pack of cigarettes per day for 30 years has a 30 pack-year smoking history, as does someone who smoked 2 packs a day for 15 years. Former smokers could enter the study if they had quit within the past 15 years. The study did not include people who had a history of lung cancer or lung cancer symptoms, if they had part of a lung removed, if they needed to be on oxygen at home to help them breathe, or if they had other serious medical problems.

People in the study got either 3 LDCT scans or 3 chest x-rays, each a year apart, to look for abnormal areas in the lungs that might be cancer. After several years, the study found that people who got LDCT had a 20% lower chance of dying from lung cancer than those who got chest x-rays. Overall, they were 7% less likely to die from any cause than those who got chest x-rays.

Screening with LDCT is also known to have some downsides that need to be considered. One drawback of this test is that it also finds a lot of abnormalities that have to be checked out with more tests, but that turn out not to be cancer. (About 1 out of 4 people in the NLST had such a finding.) This may lead to additional tests such as other CT scans or more invasive tests such as needle biopsies or even surgery to remove a portion of lung in some people. These tests can sometimes lead to complications (like a collapsed lung) or rarely, death, even in people who do not have cancer (or who have very early stage cancer).

LDCT scans also expose people to a small amount of radiation with each test. It is less than the dose from a standard CT, but it is more than the dose from a chest x-ray. Some people who are screened may end up needing further CT scans, which means more radiation. When done in tens of thousands of people, this radiation may cause a few people to develop breast, lung, or thyroid cancers later on.

The NLST was a large study, but it left some questions that still need to be answered. For example, it’s not clear if screening with LDCT scans would have the same effect if different people were allowed in the study, such as those who smoke less (or not at all) or people younger than age 55 or older than 74. Also, in the NLST, patients got a total of 3 scans over 2 years. It’s not yet clear what the effect would be if people were screened for longer than 2 years. Plus, the lung cancers that were found early were mainly of the non-small cell type, so it is not yet clear how helpful this test is in finding small cell lung cancer early.

These factors, and others, need to be taken into account by people and their doctors who are considering lung cancer risk and the decision to be screened.

American Cancer Society’s guidelines for lung cancer screening

The American Cancer Society (ACS) has a lung cancer screening guideline for people with a higher risk of getting lung cancer. The ACS recommends yearly lung cancer screening with LDCT scans for people who are 55 to 74 years old, are in fairly good health, and who also meet the following conditions:

  • Are current smokers or smokers who have quit in the past 15 years.
    and
  • Have at least a 30 pack-year smoking history. (This is the number of years you smoked multiplied by the number of packs of cigarettes per day. For example, someone who smoked 2 packs per day for 15 years [2 x 15 = 30] has 30 pack-years of smoking. A person who smoked 1 pack per day for 30 years [1 x 30 = 30] also has 30 pack-years of smoking.)
    and
  • Receive counseling to quit smoking if they are current smokers.
    and
  • Have been told by their doctor about the possible benefits, limits, and harms of screening with LDCT scans.
    and
  • Have a facility where they can go that has experience in lung cancer screening and treatment.

For patients

The main benefit of screening is a lower chance of dying of lung cancer, which accounts for many deaths in current and former smokers. Still, it’s important to be aware that screening with LDCT will not find all lung cancers, and not all of the cancers that are found will be found early. Even if a cancer is found by screening, you could still die from lung cancer. Also, LDCT often finds things that turn out not to be cancer, but have to be checked out with more tests to know what they are. You might need more CT scans, or even invasive tests such as a lung biopsy, in which a piece of lung tissue is removed with a needle or during surgery. These tests have risks of their own (see above).

If you are at a higher risk, your doctor can explain your risk and how you fit into the ACS lung cancer screening guideline. Your doctor can also talk with you about what happens during screening and the best places to get the yearly screening test. Lung cancer screening is covered by Medicare and by many private health insurance plans. Your health care team can help you find out if your insurance will provide coverage.

Screening should only be done at facilities that have the right type of CT scanner and that have experience in LDCT scans for lung cancer screening. The facility should also have a team of specialists that can give patients the appropriate care and follow-up if there are abnormal results on the scans. You might not have the right kind of facility nearby, so you may need to travel some distance to be screened.

If you are at higher risk and should be screened, you should get a LDCT every year until you reach the age of 74, as long as you are still in good health.

If you smoke, you should get counseling about stopping. You should be told about your risk of lung cancer and referred to a smoking cessation program. Screening is not a good alternative to stopping smoking. For help quitting, see our Guide to Quitting Smoking or call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345.

What does “in fairly good health” mean?

Screening is meant to find cancer in people who do not have symptoms of the disease. People who already have symptoms that might be caused by lung cancer may need tests such as CT scans to find the underlying cause, which in some cases may be cancer. But this kind of testing is for diagnosis and is not the same as screening. Some of the possible symptoms of lung cancer that kept people out of the NLST were coughing up blood and weight loss without trying.

To get the most potential benefit from screening, patients need to be in good health. For example, they need to be able to have surgery and other treatments to try to cure lung cancer if it is found. Patients who need home oxygen therapy most likely couldn’t withstand having part of a lung removed, and so are not candidates for screening. Patients with other serious medical problems that would shorten their lives or keep them from having surgery might not benefit enough from screening for it to be worth the risks, and so should also not be screened.

Metal implants in the chest (like pacemakers) or back (like rods in the spine) can interfere with x-rays and lead to poor quality CT images of the lungs. People with these types of implants were also kept out of the NLST, and so should not be screened with CT scans for lung cancer according to the ACS guidelines.

If something abnormal is found during screening

Sometimes screening tests will show something abnormal in the lungs or nearby areas that might be cancer. Most of these abnormal findings will turn out not to be cancer, but more CT scans or other tests will be needed to be sure. Some of these tests are described in Exams and tests that look for lung cancer.

CT scans of the lungs can also sometimes show problems in other organs that just happen to be in the field of view of the scans. Your doctor will discuss any such findings with you if they are found.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master's-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Smith RA, Andrews KS, Brooks D, Fedewa SA, Manassaram-Baptiste D, Saslow D, Brawley OW, Wender RC. Cancer screening in the United States, 2018: A review of current American Cancer Society guidelines and current issues in cancer screening. CA: Cancer J Clin. 2018 [Epub ahead of print]. 

Last Medical Review: February 22, 2016 Last Revised: May 30, 2018

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