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Senior living: Seniors are eligible for life-saving lung screenings

By Kathryn Campuzano,

Contributing writer

Lung cancer remains the leading cause of cancer-related deaths, accounting for more than 161,000 people dying each year. And like most cancers, the likelihood of developing it increases with age.

If you have a history of smoking, it is important you receive yearly screenings to find early signs of lung nodules that could turn into cancer.

Why lung screenings matter

Most lung cancer diagnoses come among those 55 to 84 years old, with the median age of diagnosis being 71. Many older patients do not receive the treatment they need soon enough, which allows the cancer to grow more aggressively, making it harder to treat.

Medicare recently changed the age eligibility for lung cancer screenings from 55 to 50 to help people find cancer even earlier. This now allows people in their early 50s, who are former smokers, a chance to get screened sooner to catch any potential cancer.

To be eligible for a lung cancer screening, you must meet the following criteria:

  • Be 50-77 years old for Medicare or 50-80 years old for most private insurances.
  • Don’t have signs or symptoms of lung cancer (asymptomatic).
  • Either a current smoker or have quit smoking within the last 15 years.
  • Have a tobacco smoking history of at least 20 “pack years,” meaning an average of one pack per day for 20 years.
  • Gotten an order from your doctor.
Kathryn 'Kitty' Campuzano, RN, BSN, OCN, nurse navigator, Lung Program, MemorialCare ToddCancer Institute, Long Beach Medical Center. (Photo courtesy of MemorialCare)
Kathryn ‘Kitty’ Campuzano, RN, BSN, OCN, nurse navigator, Lung Program, MemorialCare ToddCancer Institute, Long Beach Medical Center. (Photo courtesy of MemorialCare)

What doctors look for during lung screenings

During the screening, the CT scan will look for a mass of tissue in the lung that is smaller than 3 cm (slightly more than an inch) in diameter called a lung nodule. Lung nodules are one of the most common abnormalities found during a CT scan and while most lung nodules are benign (non-cancerous), if a nodule is cancerous, it can represent an early stage of primary lung cancer or indicate that cancer is spreading from another part of the body to the affected lung. For those at a higher risk, this specialized lung screening can save your life and is an effective way to monitor your lung health.

Typically, lung cancer is often found when the tumor is relatively large, after patients start having symptoms, which may require more extensive surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy to treat. Low-dose CT screenings can help detect lung cancer early when it is most treatable and curable, before symptoms start.

What lung screenings look like

A low-dose CT scan takes a 3D image of the lungs to find any abnormalities. These scans come out much clearer than the traditional chest X-ray, since an X-ray only takes one picture. It is also a lower amount of radiation compared to a standard CT scan.

For most seniors, even those who may have mobility issues, these screenings are easy to undergo:

The technician will have you lay on a table with a donut-shaped scanner attached. The team can help support you onto the bed of the scanner.

The radiologist will have you hold your breath as you pass through the scanner two to three times. The scanner is not fully enclosed, so you don’t have to worry about claustrophobia.

The scan is generally completed in 20-30 seconds and does not require an injection or medication, making the process completely noninvasive and pain free.

Where to get a lung screening

If you are interested in getting a lung cancer screening, first talk with your doctor to review your health history to find out if you qualify. Once your doctor determines whether you qualify, they will refer you to an imaging center that specializes in low-dose CT screenings.

After your lung screening, your doctor will receive a report from the radiologist. If there are no abnormalities found, your doctor may recommend you continue to receive screenings annually to monitor your lungs for any changes.

If the scan finds anything suspicious in your lungs, however, they may schedule another lung scan sooner to monitor for changes or refer you to the correct specialists for additional tests.

Lung cancer is deadly.

But now there is a proven screening technique to detect this cancer when it’s most treatable and curable. Waiting until symptoms start, for those who are at highest risk, to start looking at your lungs is no longer recommended.

If you have smoked within the last 15 years, ask your doctor or provider if you qualify for a yearly low-dose CT scan and get to know your lung health.

To learn more about lung screenings, visit

Kathryn ‘Kitty’ Campuzano is the nurse navigator for the Lung Program at MemorialCare Todd Cancer Institute at Long Beach Medical Center. As a nurse navigator, Campuzano is dedicated to assisting her patients and acting as their liaison between them and their physician throughout the entire process. 

Source: Orange County Register

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