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November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month

New screening guidelines

Karen Miller
November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month

Lung cancer is the third most common cancer in this country, but the most deadly. It is the leading cause of cancer deaths in both men and women. According to the National Cancer Institute, an estimated 238,340 new cases will be diagnosed in 2023 and over 127,000 deaths.

The median age at diagnosis is 71 and the median age at death is 72. The overall 5-year survival rate of 25% is one of the lowest. In comparison, the survival rate of prostate cancer is 97%. Black men in particular are hit hard. They experience the highest number of new cases and deaths from lung cancer.

Risk factors

Cigarette smoking is the major cause of the disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the United States cigarette smoking is linked to up to 90% of lung cancer deaths. People who smoke cigarettes are 15 to 30 times more likely to get lung cancer or die from lung cancer than people who do not smoke.

And it doesn’t take much. Smoking even a few cigarettes a day or smoking occasionally increases the risk of lung cancer, according to the CDC. Cumulative years take a toll. The more years a person smokes and the more cigarettes smoked each day, the higher the risk. That’s largely because tobacco smoke is a toxic mix of more than 7,000 chemicals, many of which are poisons. At least 70 of these chemicals are known to cause cancer. Pipes or cigars are not healthier substitutes.

Other risk factors of lung cancer are secondhand smoke and exposure to asbestos and radon.

Early detection

In 2013 a reliable screening test for lung cancer called low-dose CT scan was introduced. The American Cancer Association defines the people who should be screened yearly.

A couple of changes have been made to the recommendations. For individuals who formerly smoked, the number of years since quitting has been removed as an eligibility criterion to begin or to stop lung cancer screening. In addition, Individuals with serious medical conditions that limit life expectancy are not included. For others, below are the recommended guidelines:

  • Asymptomatic people who currently smoke or formally smoked
  • Those with a 20-pack year or more history of smoking
  • People between 50 and 80 years old


A pack-year is defined as smoking an average of one pack of cigarettes per day for one year. That means a person who smokes one pack per day for 20 years or two packs per day for 10 years has a 20-pack year.

Despite the availability of valid screening, according to the American Lung Association, in 2021 only 5.8% of those eligible participated. Massachusetts had the highest compliance at 16.3%, while California had a screening rate of 1%. Yet, if lung cancer is found early, the 5-year survival rate increases to 62.8%

Time to quit

The Massachusetts Tobacco and Nicotine Quit line is available at 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669). This is a free and confidential one-on-one coaching to help you quit tobacco — whether cigarettes, e-cigarettes, chew, or other tobacco or nicotine products.

The best way to beat lung cancer is to never smoke, but if you do smoke, develop a plan to stop.

health, lung cancer