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Lung Cancer Tests

Because lung cancer testing can be invasive, it is debated in the medical community whether or not screening for lung cancer is beneficial. Some believe it puts the patient at unnecessary risk. Since people don’t usually exhibit symptoms until the disease has advanced, others think it is the key to catching lung cancer in the early, more treatable stages. Most likely, your doctor will recommend testing only if there is cause to believe you might have lung cancer. Testing is a way to rule out other diseases, as well as to determine the possibility of lung cancer.


Your doctor will check your vitals, listen to your breathing, and feel for a swollen liver or lymph nodes.

CT (computed tomography) scan

A CT scan is a special kind of X-ray that takes several internal pictures as it rotates around your body to give a more complete idea of the size, shape, and location of possible tumors.

Additional Lung Cancer Tests

Imaging tests can detect masses or tumors, but can’t determine if they are benign or malignant. Based on preliminary findings, your doctor may order more conclusive tests to determine if cancer is present. Once the tests are performed, a doctor who specializes in reading lab results and diagnosing diseases (pathologist) will study samples of cells or tissue from your lungs. This is called a biopsy.

Sputum Cytology

Sputum is a thick fluid coughed up from the lungs.  A sample of sputum (also called phlegm) is sent to the lab for a microscopic examination to find out of cancer cells are present.


A long needle is used to take a sample of fluid (pleural effusion) between the layers of tissue that line your lung. The sample is then sent to the lab to be examined for cancer cells.


A thin, lighted tube (bronchoscope) is inserted through your mouth or nose into your lung to examine the bronchi and lungs. A cell sample may be taken for examination.

Fine-Needle Aspiration

A thin needle is used to remove a tissue or fluid sample from your lungs or lymph nodes.


Small incisions are made in your chest and back to examine tissue with a thin tube.


The chest is opened with a long incision to remove lymph node and other tissue for examination.


The doctor will insert a thin, lighted tube through a small incision at the top of your breastbone to take tissue and lymph node samples.

Testing for the Spread of Lung Cancer

Other tests may be required to locate or track the spread of cancer (metastasis).

MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging)

An MRI is an imaging test that uses magnets and radio waves, instead of radiation. This test is often used in cases when lung cancer is suspected to have spread to the brain or spinal cord.

PET (Positron Emission Tomography) Scan

A PET scan is a procedure that sends sugar containing a radioactive atom into your body. Cancer cells consume the sugar and a special camera locates the radioactivity, creating 3-D color images.

Bone Scan

A trace amount of radioactive material is injected into your vein. The radioactive material will build up in any abnormal bone. This test is only done in cases where the cancer is suspected to have spread to the bones.

Endobronchial ultrasound

This procedure uses sound waves to guide a bronchoscope down your windpipe to locate and photograph tumors. If present, samples from the area(s) in question will be taken for biopsy.

Content licensed from:

Written by: the Healthline Editorial Team
Medically reviewed on: Jul 29, 2010: Gregory Cosby

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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