Lung Cancer Diagnosis

physician speaking with nurses about a lung cancer diagnosis

When a physician suspects that a patient has lung cancer, the diagnosis can be confirmed through several different tests. Imaging scans are often the first step, as they can identify abnormal growths that might require further testing. For instance, a physician may use an X-ray, CT (computed tomography) scan or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to get a detailed visual of the patient’s lungs and thoracic cavity.

What tests are done to diagnose lung cancer?

If an imaging scan shows a growth that could possibly be lung cancer, samples of the lesion may be taken for analysis by a pathologist. Often, a fine needle aspiration will be used. During this procedure, a physician uses a long, hollow needle to take a sample directly from the tumor. However, other tests may be used to detect lung cancer instead, including:

  • Sputum cytology – A physician takes a sample of mucus that has been coughed up from the lungs. 
  • Endobronchial ultrasound (EBUS) – A physician uses a transbronchial needle aspiration to retrieve tissue or fluid samples from the lungs without having to resort to surgery. Advanced Pulmonary Services: A look at Endobronchial Ultrasound (EBUS)
  • Thoracentesis – A physician drains a build-up of fluid from the cavity around the lungs using a needle.
  • Thoracotomy – A physician removes a tissue or fluid sample during open chest surgery.
  • Bronchoscopy – A physician inserts a flexible, lighted tube (bronchoscope) into the airways of the lungs via the nose or mouth and retrieves tissue or fluid samples.

If a microscopic analysis of the biopsied material confirms that the patient’s growth is cancerous, additional tests will be used to determine whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. These tests include PET (positron emission tomography) scans, bone scans and ultrasounds. However, these tests are typically not used until a physician has confirmed a lung cancer diagnosis and is working to determine the cancer’s stage.

Medically reviewed by Dr. Eric Toloza

If you’re concerned about lung cancer, Moffitt Cancer Center provides lung cancer screening through its Lung Cancer Alliance Screening Center of Excellence to get you the answers you deserve. We also offer second opinions for patients who have received a lung cancer diagnosis. No referral is required to meet with our oncologists specializing in lung cancer – call 1-888-663-3488 or request an appointment.