Should Doctors Screen All Smokers For Lung Cancer?


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Every year, an estimated 240,000 Americans are diagnosed with lung cancer, the most deadly type of cancer. While smokers make up the majority of these cases (around 80 percent), many non-smokers are diagnosed as well. Other lung cancer risk factors include air pollution, exposure to radon gas, secondhand smoke, asbestos, and diesel exhaust.

Why Is Lung Cancer So Deadly?

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death, both here in America and worldwide. It claims more lives each year than breast, prostate, and pancreatic cancers combined. This is primarily because the symptoms of lung cancer are very nonspecific. The leading symptoms of lung cancer are coughing, chest pain, shortness of breath, and tiredness, which are all symptoms that heavy smokers may experience daily. Because of this, many people don’t go to the doctor for an evaluation until their symptoms have progressed and the cancer has reached a later stage where treatment is much less likely to be successful. This is why it’s so important for clinicians to screen for cancer in high-risk patients before they begin showing any symptoms.

Who Should Be Screened For Lung Cancer?

It’s currently estimated that around 8 million Americans are at high risk for lung cancer and would benefit from a lung cancer screen using a device called a low-dose CT scan. This device is a non-invasive way to take pictures of a patient’s lungs and identify small cancer masses that would otherwise be missed. It works by using small doses of radiation (less than a standard CT scan but more than an X-ray) to take pictures of slices of the body. The results are then put into a computer, which assembles them into a detailed image of the lungs and surrounding tissues.

The current recommendation is to screen high-risk patients using a low-dose CT scan every year while they’re at the highest risk for developing lung cancer. Factors that put a patient at high risk of developing lung cancer include:

  • 50 - 80 years old
  • current or former (within the past 15 years) heavy smoker
    • defined as someone with a 20-pack-year history, meaning one pack per day for 20 years, two packs per day for 10 years, etc
  • high-risk occupation or other significant exposure to substances known to increase the risk of lung cancer

What Can Happen If A Doctor Neglects To Screen For Lung Cancer?

Doctors who neglect to follow standard medical recommendations put their patients’ lives on the line. Clinicians may believe that a seemingly healthy individual couldn’t possibly be sick and think that a lung cancer screening is unnecessary. On the contrary, these clinicians are missing the entire purpose of the low-dose CT scan. If you wait until symptoms develop before evaluating for the possible presence of cancer, you’ve waited too long, and the odds of surviving are poor.

There are instances where a lung screening exam is inappropriate in a high-risk patient. For example, a low-dose CT scan is typically not recommended if a patient is already experiencing symptoms of lung cancer. Otherwise, the vast majority of people who meet the qualifications for a lung cancer screening should be evaluated every year, or in some cases more often, depending on the patient’s overall health and the results of previous lung cancer screenings. The failure of a practitioner to follow these basic guidelines is inexcusable and can result in a missed cancer diagnosis.

Why Choose Philadelphia’s Ross Feller Casey?

Suppose you believe that your doctor, or the doctor of a loved one, neglected to screen for lung cancer when it was medically recommended and missed your cancer diagnosis. In that case, you may be entitled to compensation. Cancer is challenging to treat in the best circumstances, but learning that you have lung cancer when it’s too late to do anything about it can be a devastating blow to the cancer victim and their family.

At Ross Feller Casey, we know how important cancer screenings are, particularly regarding lung cancer. Our team of Ivy League-trained doctors and lawyers work together to determine if standard medical guidelines were ignored or disregarded and whether or not that contributed to a late-stage lung cancer diagnosis.

If you or your loved one experienced medical malpractice regarding your lung cancer screening or late diagnosis, contact our offices today. With over $3 billion collected for our clients and a nationally recognized reputation for obtaining record-setting results, we’re ready to put our experience to work for you. Contact us to set up a free consultation.

About the Author

Dr. Matthew H. H. Young is a nationally recognized Harvard-educated physician and attorney whose practice focuses on catastrophic injuries caused by medical malpractice.

Matt Young

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