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Doctors divide lung cancer into two main types based on how the cancer cells look under a microscope. The two types are small-cell lung cancer and non-small cell lung cancer, which is more common. According to the American Lung Association, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths for both men and women in the United States.
If you think you have the symptoms of lung cancer, see your doctor immediately. Your doctor will evaluate your medical history, assess any risk factors you have, and perform a physical exam. Your doctor may then recommend additional testing if necessary.
Lung cancer testing can be invasive and can put people at an unnecessary risk. However, since people don’t usually exhibit symptoms until the disease has advanced, screening for it can help detect it early on, when it has a higher chance of curative treatment. Generally, your doctor will recommend a screening test only if they’ve found a reason to believe you might have it.
Your doctor will check your vital signs like oxygen saturation, heart rate, and blood pressure, listen to your breathing, and check for a swollen liver or lymph nodes. They may send you for additional testing if they find anything abnormal or questionable.
A CT scan is an X-ray that takes several internal pictures as it rotates around your body, providing a more detailed image of your internal organs. It can help your doctor identify early cancers or tumors better than standard X-rays.
A thin, lighted tube called a bronchoscope will be inserted through your mouth or nose and down into your lungs to examine the bronchi and lungs. They may take a cell sample for examination.
Sputum, or phlegm, is a thick fluid you cough up from your lungs. Your doctor will send a sputum sample to a lab for microscopic examination for any cancer cells or infectious organisms like bacteria.
Imaging tests can help your doctor detect masses and tumors. Some tumors can have characteristics that are suspicious, but radiologists can’t be certain if they’re benign or malignant. Only a biopsy can help your doctor determine if suspicious lung lesions are cancerous. A biopsy will also help them determine the type of cancer and help guide treatment. Several methods of lung biopsy include the following:
Often, doctors use a CT scan as an initial imaging test. It involves the injection of contrast dye into the vein. CT gives your doctor a picture of your lungs and other organs where the cancer may have spread like your liver and adrenal glands. Doctors also often use CT to guide biopsy needles.
Other tests may be necessary to determine if and where cancer has spread, or metastasized, in the body:
The stage of lung cancer describes the progression or extent of the cancer. If you receive a lung cancer diagnosis, the stage will help your doctor come up with a treatment for you. Staging doesn’t solely indicate the course and outcome of your lung cancer. Your outlook depends on your:
Lung cancer is mainly classified as either small-cell or non-small cell lung cancer. Non-small cancer is more common.
Small-cell lung cancer occurs in two stages called "limited" and "extensive."
The limited stage is confined to the chest and is usually in one lung and neighboring lymph nodes. Standard treatments include chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
The extensive stage involves both lungs and other parts of the body. Doctors usually treat this stage with chemotherapy and supportive care. If you have this type of lung cancer, you may want to see if you're a candidate for a clinical trial designed to evaluate the efficacy and safety of new drugs.
See your doctor immediately if you suspect you may have lung cancer. Many tests are available to confirm a diagnosis and to identify what stage the cancer is at if you do have cancer. Detecting cancer early on can help your doctor treat the cancer at an earlier stage and more effectively. Whatever stage the cancer is, treatment is available.
Written by: The Healthline Editorial Team
Medically reviewed on: Jun 02, 2016: Monica Bien, MPA, PA-C
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