Mountaintop Medicine from Estes Park Health: Estes Park Health offers low dose lung CT scans to screen for lung cancer

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Estes Park resident Jän Rigby is getting ready for a quick, painless test at Estes Park Health that will yield a wealth of information about his lung health.

A low dose lung CT (computed tomography) scan can show radiologists if there are any signs of lung cancer.

‘I’m getting a low dose CT scan of my lungs as ordered by my physician so that they can have a baseline for my lungs because I’m a heavy smoker and have been for years,” Rigby said.

According to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Jan qualifies for a low dose lung CT.

He is between the ages of 50 and 77, shows no symptoms of lung cancer, has a tobacco smoking history of at least 20 pack years, is a current smoker or someone who has quit in the last 15 years, and has received an order for the test.

“I’m trying to take better care of myself,” Rigby commented. “I’m about to turn 70 this month, and I’d like to live to be 100.”

Lung cancer is far more detectable and treatable than it used to be.

“We now know that it’s not a death sentence,” stated Dr. John Knudtson, Estes Park Health radiologist. “Lung cancer, just like other cancers, can be cured and treated when they’re found in the earliest stages when they’re the most treatable. The problem with lung cancer in the past is that there was no screening ability. And so, usually the cancer wasn’t discovered until the patient was very sick and symptomatic, at which point there really wasn’t much to offer.”

The low dose lung CT scan is fast and easy. No contrast is required, so patients don’t even have to have a needle stick. It’s as easy as lying on a table and following directions.

“It was absolutely painless,” Rigby stressed. “From the time I checked in until the time the procedure was completed could not have been more than ten minutes. You spend more time getting dressed in the morning than this took.”

Dr. Knudtson is the professional who reads the scans.

“We’re looking for any kind of nodule of mass,” he explained. “Those are just spots or dots that you see within the lungs, the vast majority of which are benign. We’re looking for new nodules or masses and then masses that have suspicious features like irregular borders or especially any other secondary findings like maybe fluid in the lung or enlarged lymph nodes or anything else that might indicate that this isn’t just a typical benign module or mass. You don’t initially have any symptoms at all. You may have a large and advanced cancer that you don’t even know about. You may have a very small, very curable cancer that you don’t know about. There’s a tremendous amount of information and of course a huge screening benefit to try and find lung cancer early and prevent potentially having something get missed and have a bigger problem down the road.”

What makes this test “low dose” is that it exposes the patient to about five times less radiation. That’s important since many people come back multiple times for the screening.

“They can come back and should come back every single year until they reach the age limit,” Dr. Knudtson stated. “Now that we know that we can find things, we’re moving on to the stage where the treatment of those things is getting better and better.”

For Rigby, the test yielded good news. No sign of cancer. He is glad Estes Park Health is now offering this important screening close to home.

“So, like anything that’s hospital-related, if I can have a better experience here than having to drive down the hill, then I’m going to opt for that,” Rigby said. “Every experience that I’ve had here has been a positive one.”

Dr. Knudtson is happy to provide this important service for local patients.

“I think it’s fantastic,” he added. “As the medical provider for people here in Estes Park and the Estes Valley, we want to provide that kind of care here.”

If you think you may qualify for a low dose lung CT scan, talk to your primary care doctor.

For important, state-of-the-art cancer screenings, think Estes Park Health.

To watch a video about low dose CT lung scans at Estes Park Health, go to