Thoracic (Lung Cancer) Oncology

Diagnosing Lung Cancer

If you have early stage thoracic or lung cancer, you may not notice any concerning symptoms. In these cases, your doctor may find signs of lung cancer during a test or X-ray for a different condition. 

Screening for Early Stage Lung Cancer: Low-Dose CT

What is currently the best way to screen for early stage lung cancer?
Low-dose CT (computed tomography) is one of the newest tools available for diagnosing early stage lung cancer when it is most treatable. Wake Forest Baptist has been designated a Lung Cancer Screening Center of Excellence by the Lung Cancer Alliance. This tool consists of a low dose, non-contrasted CT that uses X-rays to scan the entire chest in about 5 to 10 seconds.

It differs from a regular chest CT because the radiation dose is reduced, an IV is not required, and no contrast is used.

What is the difference between a screening exam and a diagnostic exam?
A screening is a test to find a disease before it causes symptoms or problems. A lung cancer screening is done to find lung cancer before it has spread.

Diagnostic testing is done if you have signs or symptoms of lung cancer or when a screening test finds something that looks like cancer. It is different from screening because it can involve scans with higher amounts of radiation, other tests to look at the lungs, and taking lung tissue samples.

Signs and Symptoms of Lung Cancer

As lung cancer progresses, you may experience the following signs or symptoms:

  • Chest discomfort or pain
  • A cough that doesn’t go away or gets worse over time
  • Trouble breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Blood in mucus coughed up from the lungs
  • Hoarseness
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss for no known reason

If you experience symptoms like these, it is important to see your doctor quickly. Your doctor will discuss your general health and family history, and perform a physical exam to check for signs of wheezing or fluid in your lungs. 

Diagnosing and Staging Lung Cancer  

I have signs and symptoms of lung cancer. What tests could be used to diagnose this condition?

  • Laboratory tests to check samples of tissue, blood and urine
  • Chest X-ray
  • CT (computed tomography) scan of the brain, chest and abdomen - This test makes a series of detailed pictures, taken at different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an X-ray machine. A dye may be injected into your vein or you may swallow it to help your organs or tissues show up more clearly.
  • Sputum cytology - A microscope is used to check for cancer cells in your spit (mucus coughed up from your lungs).
  • Biopsy - Removing cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a laboratory microscope to check for signs of cancer. Types of biopsies include:
    • Fine-needle aspiration (FNA) - A CT scan, ultrasound or other exam is used to find abnormal tissue or fluid. A small incision may be made in your skin, where a fine needle is inserted into the abnormal tissue or fluid, and a sample is removed. A chest X-ray is done afterwards to make sure no air is leaking from your lung into your chest.
    • Bronchoscopy - A procedure to look inside the trachea and large airways in your lung for abnormal areas. A bronchoscope is inserted through your nose or mouth into your trachea and lungs. A bronchoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It may also have a tool to remove tissue samples.
    • Thoracoscopy - A surgical procedure to look at the organs inside your chest to check for abnormal areas. A cut is made between two ribs, and a thoracoscope (a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing) is inserted into your chest. The thoracoscope may also have a tool to remove tissue or lymph node samples. In some cases, this test is used to remove part of your esophagus or lung. If certain tissues, organs or lymph nodes can’t be reached, your doctor may perform a thoracotomy. In this procedure, a larger cut is made between your ribs and your chest is opened.
    • Thoracentesis - Removing fluid from the space between the lining of your chest and lung, using a needle.
    • Mediastinoscopy - A surgical procedure to look at the organs, tissues and lymph nodes between your lungs for abnormal areas. A cut is made at the top of your breastbone and a mediastinoscope is inserted into your chest. A mediastinoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It may also have a tool to remove tissue or lymph
      node samples.
  • Light microscopy - A test in which a sample of tissue is viewed under regular and high-powered microscopes to look for certain changes in your cells.
  • Immunohistochemistry - A test that uses antibodies to check for certain antigens in a sample of tissue. The antibody is usually linked to a radioactive substance or a dye that causes the tissue to light up under a microscope. This type of test may be used to tell the difference between various types of cancer.

I've Been Diagnosed with Lung Cancer. How Will You Find Out How Far it Has Spread?

Once lung cancer is diagnosed, tests called staging are done to learn if cancer cells have spread within your chest or to other parts of your body.

Information gathered during staging determines how advanced your cancer is. It is important to know the stage of the cancer in order to plan treatment. Some tests used to diagnose lung cancer, such as CT scans, are also used to stage the disease.

Other tests that may be used during staging include:

  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) of the brain - This test uses a magnet, radio waves and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures. It is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
  • PET scan (positron emission tomography scan) - This test finds malignant tumor cells in your body. A small amount of radioactive glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein - The PET scanner rotates around your body and makes a picture of where glucose is used in your body. Malignant tumor cells show up brighter in the picture because they are more active and take up more glucose than normal cells do. A PET scan and CT scan (PET-CT) may be done at the same time.
  • Bone scan - This test checks if there are cancer cells in your bone. A very small amount of radioactive material is injected into your vein and travels through your bloodstream. The radioactive material collects in your bones and is detected by a scanner.

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Low Dose CT Lung Screening

Low Dose CT Lung Screening

Learn more about the Low Dose CT lung screening, a new tool for diagnosing early stage lung cancer.

Last Updated: 08-23-2016
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Disclaimer: The information on this website is for general informational purposes only and SHOULD NOT be relied upon as a substitute for sound professional medical advice, evaluation or care from your physician or other qualified health care provider.