How To Catch Lung Cancer Early and Why It’s Important

Ari Cofer Fact Checked
An image of a pair of lungs constructed from plants
© Yaroslav Danylchenko / Stocksy United

The thought of getting lung cancer is scary, especially when it's an unexpected diagnosis. 

We know that those with a history of smoking or smoking exposure have the most significant risk for the disease. People with jobs that expose them to substances like asbestos, coal smoke, wood smoke and more also have an increased risk.

Environmental factors can also contribute to someone’s lung cancer risk, such as increased exposure to diesel truck exhaust, power plants and other air pollutants. In addition, those with a family history of lung cancer have a higher chance of being diagnosed. 

The thing is, you could limit your exposure as much as possible, but at the end of the day, cancer is random and not your fault — some people who never smoke or don’t have a family history can get lung cancer.  

Anyone with lungs can get lung cancer, but catching it early gives you the best chance at a full recovery. Currently, only 16% of lung cancer cases are diagnosed at an early stage. So, what can you do to protect yourself — and what should you know about treatment options if you or a loved one needs it? 

How to catch lung cancer early

Say you’re someone in one of the categories that puts you at a higher risk of developing lung cancer. In addition to smoking, smoke exposure, occupational exposure and family history, some other risk factors include:

  • You’re over 50 years old 
  • You smoked one pack a day on average for 20 years or two packs a day for ten years 
  • A previous history of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) 
  • A history of pulmonary fibrosis 
  • A prior cancer history of other smoking-related cancers 
  • A documented high radon exposure 

In this case, being proactive about your lung care is important. Even if everything feels okay, if you meet some or all of these qualifications, go ahead and start the conversation with your doctor about whether you should begin the screening process.  

The current screening process consists of a fast, simple and painless test. You can stay entirely clothed (no always-untying hospital gown) while your doctor takes a collection of images (low-dose computed tomography or Chest CT) to create a detailed picture of your lungs.  

“The most effective way to successfully treat lung cancer is to catch it early when it’s small and hasn’t spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body,” says Dr. Douglas Wood, a thoracic surgeon at UW Medical Center. “If you think you may be at high risk for lung cancer, it’s important to start a discussion with your primary care physician in order to be educated about lung cancer screening.” 

Why lung cancer screening is crucial 

Wood, who led the drafting of the current lung cancer screening guidelines, says the biggest challenge in lung cancer treatment today is catching it early enough so it can be treated with a high likelihood of a cure.  

“The majority of lung cancers aren’t detected until they’re already at an advanced stage when there is little chance of cure,” says Wood.  

So, why is catching lung cancer early a challenge? One of the biggest reasons: People just aren’t getting screened as soon (or as often) as they should.   

“Not enough people who are at risk for lung cancer are being screened,” says Wood. “Early detection provides the best opportunity to turn lung cancer victims into lung cancer survivors.”  

Looking to the future, Wood mentions there are additional diagnostic tests in development, some that could be done with just a simple blood test, that could help with the early detection of cancer and follow-up for patients treated for cancer. 

Lung cancer treatment success 

Starting a journey with a lung cancer diagnosis, whether your own or a loved one’s, can feel daunting and uncertain — and that’s a valid reaction. However, there is hope through current lung cancer treatments; and the future of lung cancer treatment looks promising, too. 

“We’re fortunate to be living in a time when there are rapid improvements in lung cancer diagnosis and treatment,” says Wood. “Early-stage cancers are usually best treated by surgery, but advances in radiation offer an alternative to surgery in some patients who are high risk or want to avoid surgery. Systemic therapies, or treatment done through the bloodstream, have also made incredible advances in treating patients with more advanced cancers,” says Wood. 

For example, immunotherapies, which can harness our immune system to attack tumor cells, and targeted therapies, which attack a cancer cell’s unique vulnerabilities, are revolutionizing the treatment of lung cancer and have been shown to change the outlook on many people’s diagnoses and improve their quality of life. 

How to advocate for yourself in the doctor’s office 

Advocating for yourself or a loved one in the doctor’s office can be tricky, but preparing yourself with the right knowledge before your appointment is key. 

If you think you may be at risk, Wood suggests you ask your doctor about lung cancer screening.  

Wood says that if you’re found to have lung cancer, it’s essential to get care from experts about the latest treatments. “Seek out specialists who treat lung cancer as a prominent part of their practice, and don’t hesitate to get a second opinion, especially if there are questions about the best treatment options.”  

Looking to the future 

Here’s what to remember: The future of lung cancer treatment is promising, and the current treatment is most effective when the cancer is caught early. Wood leaves a few final thoughts for those in the midst of their lung cancer journey: 

Lung cancer used to be considered a death sentence with little opportunity for long-term survival. Those diagnosed at the earliest stages have a survival rate of over 80%. 

Don’t let the fear of lung cancer stop you from talking to your doctor. Family and friends can often judge those with a diagnosis and blame the person with lung cancer. Remember, whether you were a lifelong smoker or never touched a cigarette, there should be no shame in getting help and treatment. 

Lung cancer is a scary diagnosis, and doctors are here to help you process this huge life change, listen carefully, understand your preferences and values and work to see how they can provide the best care. 

“This is a time to be optimistic, even when faced with a sobering diagnosis of cancer, that treatment offers many options for prolonging life and maintaining the quality of life,” says Wood.