Lung cancer screening for older adults: Your guide to peace of mind

Nov 03, 2023
With an understanding of lung cancer screening, recognising the symptoms, and embracing preventive measures, we can take control of our health and work toward a healthier and happier future. Source: Getty Images.

As we age, taking proactive steps to maintain our health becomes increasingly important. Among the various health concerns we may face, lung cancer stands out as a considerable threat.

Each year, approximately 14,500 Australians are diagnosed with lung cancer with the average age at diagnosis being around 72 years of age.

However, there’s good news: early detection and prevention can make a significant difference.

As part of Lung Cancer Awareness Month, Starts at 60 explores lung cancer screening guidelines for older adults, examines risk factors, symptoms to be on the lookout for, and preventative measures.

Understanding lung cancer screening

Lung cancer is a formidable global health challenge, and early detection is a critical factor in improving patient outcomes. Lung cancer screening is an essential component of this early detection strategy.

A comprehensive understanding of lung cancer screening is essential for both healthcare professionals and the general public to combat this disease more effectively and enhance the chances of early intervention and successful treatment.

Senior Manager Prevention and Early Detection at Cancer Council Queensland, Sharyn Chin Fat highlights that “the first tests for diagnosing lung cancer are usually a chest x-ray, which is followed by a CT scan”.

“You may also have a breathing test to check how your lungs are working and blood tests to check your overall health,” Fat explains.

Further tests to diagnose lung cancer include:
• Biopsy
• Sputum cytology
• Pleural tap

In May 2023, Health and Aged Care Minister, Mark Butler, revealed Australia’s inaugural National Lung Cancer Screening Program, aimed at early detection of the disease.

Scheduled to launch by July 2025, the initiative marks the country’s first national cancer screening effort, garnering support from Cancer Council Queensland.

You can read more about the program here:

Symptoms and the importance of early detection

Recognising the signs and symptoms of various medical conditions is the first step towards proactive healthcare.

By gaining insights into how to identify the symptoms and warning signs of lung cancer and acting promptly, you can improve your chances of receiving timely medical intervention, potentially enhancing your health outcomes.

Fat explains that those “over the age of 60 are at a higher risk of developing lung cancer due to factors such as long-term exposure and lifestyle behaviours such as smoking or occupational hazards.

“Ageing is also associated with physiological changes, such as a weakened immune system and decreased lung function. These changes can make seniors more susceptible to the development and progression of lung cancer,” Fat says.

“It’s also common for seniors to receive a delayed diagnosis of lung cancer because they attribute the symptoms like coughing or shortness of breath to the natural ageing process. That’s why, if you’re over the age of 60 and experiencing persistent or severe symptoms see your GP as soon as possible.”

The main symptoms of lung cancer can include:

• A persistent new cough (lasting more than 3 weeks) or a change in a cough you’ve had for a long time
• Breathlessness
• Pain in the chest or shoulder
• Chest infection that lasts more than 3 weeks or that keeps returning
• Coughing or spitting up blood

Lung cancer may also cause more general symptoms such as:

• Wheezing
• Fatigue
• Weight loss
• Hoarse voice
• Difficulty swallowing
• Abdominal pain
• Joint and neck pain neck
• Swelling of the face swelling and enlarged fingertips.

Fat stresses that experiencing these symptoms does not necessarily mean you have lung cancer.

“It may be signs of another condition. Distinguishing between the symptoms of lung cancer and the effects of ageing or another medical condition can be challenging because some symptoms may overlap,” she explains.

“The key thing to consider is the persistence of your symptoms. While some symptoms like fatigue and shortness of breath, can be associated with aging, persistent or worsening symptoms should be a cause for concern.

“If your symptoms are severe, last for an extended period, or suddenly worsen, we recommend seeing your doctor as soon as possible.”

Prevention and lifestyle changes

Prevention can often be the most powerful tool in the pursuit of good health. By understanding proactive measures and sustainable habits, you can take control of your health, mitigate risks, and work towards a healthier, happier life.

There are several lifestyle changes and preventive measures that seniors can adopt to reduce their risk of developing lung cancer:

• Quit smoking and avoid second hand smoke – it is never too late to quit.
• Avoid exposure to asbestos if you are doing your own home renovations!
• Stay physically active with regular exercise
• Regular check-ups with your GP to ensure early detection.

“A great way to assess your current cancer risk is by using our Cancer Risk Calculator, which is a free online tool to find ways to reduce your cancer risk,” Fat says.

“When you complete the calculator, you receive a score that will show you how much you are currently reducing your cancer risk and what you could be doing better.”

With an understanding of lung cancer screening, recognising the symptoms, and embracing preventive measures, we can take control of our health and work toward a healthier and happier future.


IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

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