Did Your Parents Smoke?

Elaine Porterfield Fact Checked
Summer day spent with dad
© Joselito Briones / Stocksy United

So your father enjoyed his cigars over the years. Or maybe your mother lit up more than a few cigarettes on the back porch when you were growing up. And that makes you worry your mom or dad is at increased risk for lung cancer.

Your fears are warranted: Lung cancer is deadly, killing more Americans than any other kind of cancer. That’s often because it can grow silently and be at an advanced stage by the time any symptoms appear, and there’s no blood test for it. In 2014, more than 155,000 people died from lung cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But there is hope. A type of screening offered by UW Medicine and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance has become a game changer in earlier detection of who is developing the disease—or may develop it. That’s important because, like any other form of cancer, lung cancer has a much better chance of being cured the earlier it’s discovered.

CT screening picks up disease early

This new screening, which uses CT scans to examine the lungs, has shown genuine power at picking up the disease at earlier stages than previous screening methods.

“We’ve found early-stage cases where we’re able to take those tumors out,” says Kaylee Petersen, ARNP, a nurse practitioner with the Lung Cancer Screening Program. “So often, lung cancer is caught later when it is late stage and there are symptoms, and by that time treatment can be difficult.”

A 2011 study shows the CT screening led to a 20 percent reduction in mortality when compared to standard chest X-rays to check for the disease. Despite this, only 2 percent of current and former heavy smokers—the people who are at the greatest risk of developing lung cancer—are getting the screening test.

How to broach the subject of screening with parents 

It can be tough sometimes to talk to family members about getting medical tests, especially when it’s your parents, who are used to being the ones in charge. This can be even more complicated when your mom or dad has never heard of a particular test or can’t immediately see the need for it. And sometimes, people are resistant because they’re afraid they might hear bad news.

Openness and patience are key in discussing medical tests or other healthcare issues with aging parents, says Wayne McCormick, M.D., a physician at Harborview Medical Center and head of gerontology and geriatric medicine for UW Medicine.

He says he understands it can be difficult broaching healthcare topics with your parents. 

“Dynamics are different in every family,” he says. But one way to tackle it is to tell them about steps you’ve taken regarding your own healthcare. Say you’ve put into place advance directives regarding your wishes about your medical care should you become incapacitated, he says.

“Go to them and say, ‘This is my advance directive; is there one you’d want if you got sicker?’” McCormick suggests. “It’s a good way to at least start the conversation.”

Overall, stay calm and open. 

“Just say that you don’t want to nag, but you do want to leave conversation open if they want to talk about it,” he says. “Sometimes people need to sleep on something. You can broach a subject and might not get much back initially, but a week or two later you may be able to keep talking about it.”

Screening could save your parent’s life

When it’s a conversation about something as key as a lung cancer screening, it’s worth it to persist. After all, as difficult as the conversation may be at first, it’s worth it if it helps keep your parents healthy. 

Medicare and private insurance will cover the CT screening if certain factors are met. Find out if your parent is eligible for coverage.