How Does My Doctor Know I Have Lung Cancer?

April 01, 2016

If you’re having lung-cancer-like symptoms, 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

In addition to asking you questions, your doctor may also do these things:

  • 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 also perhaps a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test.

The results of these exams may be enough to rule out lung cancer. Or you may require further tests. However, 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 almost always required to diagnose lung cancer. A biopsy can be obtained by placing a special small camera called a bronchoscope in the airway, or by placing a needle through the skin and using images (CT scan or ultrasound) to guide where to take the sample. Or, occasionally a surgical procedure may be necessary. The method used to obtain a biopsy sample is determined partly by the location and size of the tumor.


March 30, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Foster, Sara, RN, MPH