Playing the odds: lung cancer surveillance after curative surgery

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Purpose of review

After ‘curative’ resection, many patients are still at risk for further lung cancer, either as a recurrence or a new metachronous primary. In theory, close follow-up should improve survival by catching relapse early – but in reality, many experts feel that surveillance for recurrence is of uncertain value. In this article, we explore the reasons behind the controversy, what the current guidelines recommend, and what future solutions are in development that may ultimately resolve this debate.

Recent findings

Although postoperative surveillance for a new lung cancer may impart a survival advantage, this benefit does not appear to extend to the phenomenon of recurrence. Nevertheless, close radiographic follow-up after curative resection is still recommended by most professional societies, with more frequent scanning in the first 2 years, and then annual screening thereafter. Given the radiation risk, however, low-dose and minimal-dose computed tomography options are under investigation, as well as timing scans around expected peaks of recurrence rather than a set schedule.


Applying the same surveillance algorithm to all lung cancer patients after curative resection may not be cost-effective or reasonable, especially if there is no demonstrable mortality benefit. Therefore, future research should focus on finding safer nonradiographic screening options, such as blood or breath biomarkers, or developing nomograms for predicting which patients will relapse and require closer follow-up. Ultimately, however, better tools for surveillance may be moot until we develop better treatment options for lung cancer recurrence.

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