Cancer Screening - Do Chest X-Rays Help?
By Linda Day
There is one indisputable fact about lung cancer -- the
earlier the disease is detected, the better the chances
of curing it. This is why lung cancer screening is of
Doctors point out that although the overall survival
rate for lung cancer at the five-year mark is only 15%,
the survival rate for those whose cancer was detected
early and could be surgically treated is as high as 80%.
For this reason, some doctors recommend periodic lung
cancer screening with chest x-rays.
Once this disease has progressed somewhat, it will
spread rapidly to other areas of the lung and to
critical organs all over the body. At that stage,
surgery is no longer a viable treatment method.
Unfortunately, the early stages of lung cancer do not
give rise to any alarming symptoms. Common symptoms
include a persistent cough, a tendency to get
respiratory illnesses, etc. These symptoms are not
linked to lung cancer alone. This is why lung cancer is
rarely diagnosed till it is too late.
In this context, regular screening for lung cancer -- at
least for those who are most at risk of developing it,
like smokers -- seems like a sensible choice. However,
unlike in the case of many other diseases (including
other cancers), there is no truly effective screening
test available for lung cancer.
In most cases, lung cancer is detected when doing tests
like chest x-rays for other health problems. Because of
the risks involved, most doctors do not recommend chest
x-rays as a routine screening procedure. Many believed
(till recently) that chest x-rays can be fairly
misleading when it comes to detecting cancer.
This conclusion was based on studies conducted during
the 1970s. Those studies showed that chest x-rays were
not effective at detecting dangerous, fast-spreading
tumors at the earliest stages. Further, those who were
detected with relatively slow-growing tumors had to
undergo surgery and other treatments that were not
However, many things have changed since the time those
studies were done. Today, x-rays are far more sensitive
than they were back then. In addition, there is a
battery of refined tests available that can be used to
follow up on any problems detected with the x-ray.
A new study is being conducted by the National Cancer
Institute on a group of 150,000 healthy adults. This
study, sponsored by the American government, divides
these 150,000 people into two equal groups -- one group
is screened annually with x-rays, while the other
(forming the control group) does not receive such
The preliminary results show that about doctors found
something abnormal in almost 6,000 people. They were
followed upon with CAT scans, more x-rays and other
diagnostic tests. From among these people, 206 had
biopsies done. Eventually, 126 people were diagnosed
with cancer. This is only 2.1% of the original group of
6,000 with abnormalities in their x-rays.
The bad news is that the 6,000 represent a large number
of false positives. It resulted in unnecessary follow up
x-rays, CAT scans, etc. The good news is that out of
those detected with cancer, fully 44% were at the
earliest stages of the disease -- when the cancer is
most treatable and the chances of survival highest.
The final results from this ongoing study will only be
available some years from now. But based on the
preliminary results, it appears that regular lung cancer
screening with chest x-rays may help at early detection
and a better cure-rate for this disease.
Linda Day is a researcher who has written articles about
what is lung cancer, provides access to
lung cancer pictures and more. For more information
about this disease, check out the previous links.