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Lung Cancer Screening

Until recently, a diagnosis of lung cancer was often not made until symptoms had developed. New research, however, shows that annual screenings of people with a high risk for lung cancer can save lives.

Screenings consist of a low-dose computed tomography (CT) scan of the chest. (CT scanning is also known as CT imaging or CAT scanning. Learn more about CT scans at UC San Diego.) It allows us to identify lung cancer at earlier stages, when treatment is more likely to be effective.

What are "pack years"?

Pack years are a way to measure how much someone has smoked, and help identify who is at risk for developing lung cancer.

To calculate pack years, multiply the number of packs of cigarettes smoked daily by the number of years. One pack year means that someone smoked one package of cigarettes (20 cigarettes) daily for one year.

Someone would have a smoking history of 30 pack years if they:

  • Smoked one package of cigarettes daily for 30 years
  • Smoked one and a half packages daily for 20 years
  • Smoked two packages daily for 15 years

Who Should Be Screened?

We recommend screening for those who fit these criteria:

  • Age 55–77
  • Current smoker or quit smoking within the past 15 years
  • Have a smoking history of 30 or more "pack years"
  • Have no signs or symptoms of lung disease


Your primary care physician or pulmonologist can order a scan if you fit these criteria, or call the screening coordinator at 855-355-5864 (LUNG) and select option 3. Many insurance plans, including Medicare, cover this screening. Referring providers, contact Physician Access Services.

Screening Results and Diagnosis

Once your screening CT scan is completed, our screening coordinator will contact you by phone or mail. The screening coordinator can also be reached directly at 855-355-5864, option 3. If the CT screening shows any abnormalities, you will be scheduled for an appointment with a pulmonologist (lung specialist) to review your CT scan and discuss the results. A call back does not mean that you have cancer, but it does mean that you may need additional testing, which is usually performed by an interventional pulmonologist.

If you need additional evaluations, UC San Diego offers sophisticated diagnostic options, including:

For more information on diagnosing lung cancer, see Interventional Pulmonology.

About the National Lung Screening Trial (NLST)

UC San Diego's screening program is based on the results of a large study sponsored by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). It compared two ways of detecting lung cancer — CT screenings or a standard chest X-ray — and found that annual screening with a low-dose CT exam reduced lung cancer mortality by 15 to 20 percent. For more information on the NLST, see the National Cancer Institute study description.

Help to Quit Smoking

The best way to prevent lung cancer is to stop smoking. Research shows that even heavy smokers can significantly lower their risk of lung cancer by stopping smoking. Even for those already diagnosed with lung cancer, quitting may improve your response to treatment.

The California Smoker's Helpline provides telephone counseling and other free services.

Appointments & Referrals


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