Diagnosis is the process of finding the cause of a health problem. The process of diagnosis may seem long and frustrating, but it is important for the doctor to rule out other reasons for a health problem before making a cancer diagnosis. Diagnostic tests for lung cancer are usually done when:
Many of the same tests used to initially diagnose cancer are used to determine the stage (how far the cancer has progressed). Your doctor may also order other tests to check your general health and to help plan your treatment. Tests may include the following.
The medical history is a record of present symptoms, risk factors and all the medical events and problems a person has had in the past. The medical history of a person’s family may also help the doctor to diagnose lung cancer.
In taking a medical history, the doctor will ask questions about:
A physical examination allows the doctor to look for any signs of lung cancer. During a physical examination, the doctor may:
An x-ray uses small doses of radiation to make an image of the body’s structures on film. A chest x-ray is often the first test done to diagnose lung cancer. It is used to look for any spots, tumours or changes in the lungs.
A CT scan uses special x-ray equipment to make 3-dimensional and cross-sectional images of organs, tissues, bones and blood vessels inside the body. A computer turns the images into detailed pictures. It is used to:
A PET scan uses radioactive materials (radiopharmaceuticals) to detect changes in the metabolic activity of body tissues. A computer analyzes the radioactive patterns and makes 3-dimensional colour images of the area being scanned.
PET scans may be used to find out if lung cancer has spread to the lymph nodes or other structures in the chest.
Mucus that is coughed up from the lungs (sputum) may be examined for the presence of cancer cells. Several sputum samples are collected, usually in the early morning. If people have trouble coughing up sputum, they may be given a mist to inhale to help them cough.
An endoscopic procedure may be done to diagnose and stage non–small lung cancer (NSCLC). It allows a doctor to look inside body cavities using a flexible tube with a light and lens on the end (an endoscope). Endoscopic procedures used to diagnose and stage lung cancer include:
Ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves to make images of structures in the body. It is used:
During a biopsy, tissues or cells are removed from the body so they can be tested in a laboratory. The pathology report from the laboratory will confirm whether or not cancer cells are present in the sample. The biopsies that could be used for lung cancer are:
MRI uses powerful magnetic forces and radio-frequency waves to make cross-sectional images of organs, tissues, bones and blood vessels. A computer turns the images into 3-dimensional pictures. It is used to look for lung cancer that has spread to the brain or spinal cord.
An MRI of the heart (cardiac MRI) may be done before surgery to look for any problems or changes in the heart that may prevent a person from having surgery.
A bone scan uses bone-seeking radioactive materials (radiopharmaceuticals) and a computer to create a picture of the bones. It is used to look for lung cancer that has spread to the bone (bone metastases) in people who have:
Molecular tissue tests look for certain changes in the genes of non–small cell lung cancer cells. These genetic mutations may change how much or the type of protein the cancer cells produce. These changes may affect the type of treatment given because some chemotherapy drugs may be more effective against cancer cells with these changes. Molecular tissue tests may also help predict prognosis.
Molecular tissue tests for non-small cell lung cancer look for the genes responsible for:
Specific mutations in these genes are associated with a better response to some drugs.
A complete blood count (CBC) measures the number and quality of white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets. A CBC is done to provide basic information about the person’s general health before treatment starts.
Blood chemistry tests measure certain chemicals in the blood. They show how well certain organs are functioning and can also be used to detect abnormalities. They are used to stage lung cancer.
Pulmonary function tests (also called lung function tests) check how well the lungs are working. They measure how much air the lungs can hold and how well the person can let air out of the lungs. These tests are important if doctors are considering surgery as a treatment option for non–small cell lung cancer. These tests help make sure that the person will have enough lung capacity after a lung or part of a lung is removed.
A pulmonary ventilation/perfusion scan (lung scan or VQ scan) is a nuclear scan that uses 2 tests to look at the blood supply of the lungs and how well air moves through the lungs. It is used if doctors are considering surgery as a treatment option. This test helps make sure that a person’s remaining lung is healthy and that the person will be able to tolerate surgery.
A chest x-ray is done before the VQ scan so the doctors can compare the results of both tests.
In the perfusion scan, a radioisotoperadioisotopeA substance or element that gives off radiation. is injected into a vein. A scanning machine is used to look at the lungs as the blood with the radioactive particles flows through the arteries of the lungs. The pictures from the machine show any problems with the blood supply of the lungs.
During the ventilation scan, the person breathes a radioactive gas through a mask while the scanner is used to watch the air flow in the lungs.
The doctor may order heart function tests to make sure that the person’s heart is healthy enough to tolerate and recover from lung cancer surgery. The tests that may be used are:
An arterial blood gas is a test that measures the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood. It also measures the acidity (pH) of the blood. Arterial blood gas may be done to check how well the lungs are working, if doctors are considering surgery as a treatment option.
A small needle is used to take blood from an artery (usually the artery in the wrist). Afterwards, pressure is applied for a few minutes to stop bleeding.
The blood sample is taken to the laboratory immediately to make sure the results are accurate.
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The Canadian Cancer Society’s peer support program is a telephone support service that matches cancer patients and their caregivers with specially trained volunteers.