Lung Cancer - Small Cell: Screening

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 01/2021

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about screening for SCLC. You will also learn the risks and benefits of screening. Use the menu to see other pages.

Screening is used to look for cancer before you have any symptoms or signs. Scientists have developed, and continue to develop, tests that can be used to screen a person for specific types of cancer. The overall goals of cancer screening are to:

  • Lower the number of people who die from the disease, or eliminate deaths from cancer altogether

  • Lower the number of people who develop the disease.

Learn more about the basics of cancer screening.

Screening information for lung cancer

Several groups, including ASCO, have recommendations for lung cancer screening using a test called a low-dose helical or spiral computed tomography (CT) scan. A CT scan takes pictures of the inside of the body using x-rays taken from different angles. A computer combines these pictures into a detailed, 3-dimensional image that shows any abnormalities or tumors.

CT scanning is not recommended for every person who smokes. The current recommendations are discussed below, and such screening for lung cancer is approved by Medicare. It is also important to receive screening at an approved and experienced center.

It is important to note that lung cancer screening was intended to find NSCLC, and not SCLC. However, sometimes SCLC is found on lung cancer screening scans.

ASCO recommends the following lung cancer screening schedules for people who currently smoke or who have quit smoking:

  • Yearly screening with a low-dose CT scan is recommended instead of screening with a chest x-ray or no screening for people age 55 to 74 who have smoked for 30 "pack years" or more who are current smokers or who have quit within the past 15 years. A pack year is equal to smoking 20 cigarettes (1 pack) a day each year.

  • CT screening is not recommended for people who have smoked for less than 30 pack years, are younger than 55 or older than 74, have quit smoking more than 15 years ago, or have a serious condition that could affect cancer treatment or shorten a person's life.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that people age 50 to 80 who have smoked for 20 pack years or more or who have quit within the past 15 years receive screening for lung cancer with low-dose CT scans each year. Screening can stop after a person has not smoked for 15 years or develops a health problem that would shorten their life or prevent them from being able to have surgery for lung cancer.

Listen to a Cancer.Net Podcast on Understanding Lung Cancer Screening and find more information about lung cancer screening on the website of the National Cancer Institute.

The next section in this guide is Symptoms and Signs. It explains what body changes or medical problems SCLC can cause. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.