Detecting Lung Cancer Early

Reviewed by Bronwyn Long, DNP, MBA, RN, Jeffrey Kern, MD, Laurie L. Carr, MD

New Methods, Decades in the Making, Find Lung Cancer When it Can Still Be Cured

Drs James Jett and David Lynch

If you wait until you feel the symptoms of lung cancer, it’s probably already inoperable. Only 15 percent of patients survive five years after being diagnosed with lung cancer, and 60 percent of newly diagnosed lung cancer patients will die within a year. But lung cancer is eminently treatable if it is caught early. Survival rates climb dramatically with early diagnosis, to around 80 percent for localized, stage I cancers.

Tricky Problem

Screening for lung cancer is complicated. Advanced imaging may detect tiny cancers before they cause symptoms. But the vast majority of people undergoing such a screening test would get no benefit because they do not have cancer. Some images show an abnormality that subsequently proves benign, a false-positive test, leading to unnecessary anxiety and diagnostic procedures that could cause harm and even death.

“Finding the balance between the potential life-saving benefits of early detection and the social and personal costs of false-positive tests has been a tremendous challenge,” said Debra Dyer, MD, chair of the Department of Radiology at National Jewish Health “Many thought there would never be an effective screening test for lung cancer.”

Creating an Effective Screening Tool

Researchers at National Jewish Health never gave up on the need for an effective way to screen for lung cancer. In 2010, an international team of researchers that included National Jewish Health radiologist David Lynch, MD, reported the results of the National Lung Screening Trial: low-dose CT scans offered yearly for three years to heavy smokers at high risk for lung cancer decreased mortality by 20 percent, compared to screening with chest X-rays.

“This research offered the single most important decrease in lung-cancer mortality reported to date,” said Dr. Lynch. “We have now shown that CT screening can be an effective tool to detect lung cancer early when more curative treatment options are available. For carefully selected high-risk individuals, the low-dose CT chest scan can be a life-saver, and we recommend it to patients.”

Lung Cancer Screening Program

The Lung Cancer Screening Program at National Jewish Health focuses on early detection of lung cancer. Because a screening CT identifies suspicious lesions in high-risk individuals before there are any symptoms, lung cancer can be detected earlier when much more easily treated. This program has been selected as a Lung Cancer Screening Center of Excellence by the Lung Cancer Alliance. This designation signifies that the National Jewish Health program meets and exceeds all safety requirements for a lung cancer screening.

Finding a Lung Nodule During a Screening

When the CT scan finds a lung nodule, the nodule needs to be examined and watched closely because it could become cancerous and need to be removed. National Jewish Health created the nation’s first program that helps patients and their primary care doctors monitor lung cancer screenings and start treatment at the earliest possible time. Learn more about the Lung Nodule Registry Program.


Clinical Trials

For more than 100 years, National Jewish Health has been committed to finding new treatments and cures for diseases. Search our clinical trials.