Elder woman

Lung cancer remains a top killer in our country today. According to the CDC, it is the third most common cancer in the United States.

In 2020, nearly 117,000 women were diagnosed with lung cancer and more than 62,000 women died from the disease in the U.S, according to the American Cancer Society. Many of those women were long-time nicotine users.

But while lung cancer diagnoses are declining for men, the opposite is true for women. More than two-thirds of nonsmokers with lung cancer are women.

“Lung cancer is the highest cause of cancer death in the United States,” says David Wilson, MD, a pulmonologist who specializes in treating patients with lung cancer at UPMC. “More people die of lung cancer than the next three cancers combined, which would be colon, breast, and prostate.” 

What is Lung Cancer?

Lung cancer occurs when cells in the lungs change by growing uncontrollably and cluster together to form a tumor. Symptoms usually do not appear until the cancer has spread to other parts of the body and, unfortunately, it is difficult to detect early.

Currently, there is no recommendation to screen nonsmokers or people who have no history of smoking. For at-risk populations, however, screenings are highly encouraged.

“Lung cancer screening is an early detection test for high-risk individuals for lung cancer,” says Dr. Wilson. “It’s similar to mammography for breast cancer or colonoscopy for colon cancer. It involves a low-dose CT scan, which is about one-eighth of the radiation of a standard diagnostic CT scan. It’s designed to be done annually.” 

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Screenings for Lung Cancer

Patient history and an evaluation of risk factors are used to decide if screening criteria are met. For example, to be eligible for the Lung Cancer Screening Program at UPMC, patients must:

  • Be between 50 and 77 years of age*
  • Have at least a 20 “pack-year” history of smoking (one pack per day for a year is equivalent to one “pack year”)
  • Be a current smoker or have quit within the past 15 years
  • Not be in treatment for cancer

Patients who meet these requirements may receive a yearly low-dose CT scan with no dye and an annual office visit for the rest of their lifetimes. 

“Unfortunately, when people are diagnosed with lung cancer, it’s usually at an advanced stage, which makes it much less likely to be cured,” says Dr. Wilson. “Lung cancer screening with low-dose CT scan detects the cancer at an earlier stage and, if in fact it’s an early-stage cancer, there’s an 80% chance of cure.” 

The test involves laying on a table in a radiology department, he says, and getting a CT scan in about five seconds. 

Patients who meet these requirements may receive a yearly low-dose CT scan with no dye and an annual office visit for the rest of their lifetimes.

What to Watch For

Doctors encourage all women to be their own advocate. For any woman who has smoked in the past, whether you have symptoms or not, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about it. They can gather information to evaluate your personal risk factors and recommend screening, if appropriate.

Knowledge about lung cancer is the best defense in finding early-stage disease.

Signs and Symptoms of Lung Cancer

Talk to your doctor if you have any of the following signs:

  • A persistent cough that does not go away or gets worse
  • Coughing up blood or rust-colored phlegm
  • Chest pain that is often worse with deep breathing, coughing, or laughing
  • Hoarseness
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

About UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

When you are facing cancer, you need the best care possible. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides world-class cancer care, from diagnosis to treatment, to help you in your cancer battle. We are the only comprehensive cancer center in our region, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. We have more than 70 locations throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, with more than 200 oncologists – making it easier for you to find world-class care close to home. Our internationally renowned research team is striving to find new advances in prevention, detection, and treatment. Most of all, we are here for you. Our patient-first approach aims to provide you and your loved ones the care and support you need. To find a provider near you, visit our website.