How Is Lung Cancer Diagnosed?

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
February 20, 2023
How Does My Doctor Know I Have Lung Cancer?

If you have symptoms of lung cancer, the results of screening or procedures may find or rule out lung cancer. You may even require additional tests.

If you have symptoms of lung cancer, your doctor will want to know why. Your doctor is likely to ask you questions about your:

  • Medical history
  • Smoking history
  • Family history of cancer or smoking
  • Exposure to other risk factors

Your doctor may also:

  • Perform a physical exam, which will include listening to your breathing.
  • Give you a sputum cytology test. For this test, each morning for 3 to 5 days you collect the substance that you spit up from your lungs, called sputum. A pathologist then looks at the sputum under a microscope for cancer cells. Not all types of lung cancer show up in this test.
  • Schedule an x-ray of your chest to look for masses in your lungs.
  • Arrange for other imaging tests to get a better picture of your lungs. This may include a computed tomography (CT) scan and perhaps a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test. CT is the standard test recommended by the Unites States Preventative Services Task Force for high-risk patients.

The results of these exams may be enough to rule out lung cancer. Or you may require further tests.

If imaging tests show abnormal findings, such as a mass or fluid, you may need to have a sample taken. This sample, called a biopsy, is usually required to diagnose lung cancer. A pathologist will examine the tissue for evidence of cancer.

In a biopsy, a doctor places a special small camera called a bronchoscope in your airway, or places a needle through your skin and uses images (CT scan or ultrasound) to guide where to take the sample. Occasionally a surgical procedure may be necessary for a biopsy.

The location and size of your tumor usually determines the method your doctor uses for a biopsy.


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February 20, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O'Dell, RN