A solitary pulmonary nodule (SPN) is an abnormal growth in
the lung. Often a person who has an SPN does not have any respiratory symptoms.
A chest X-ray or CT scan done for some other reason usually detects an SPN.
An SPN found on a chest X-ray does not mean
lung cancer is present. A past lung infection can
cause a noncancerous SPN. Only about half of SPNs are cancer. Noncancerous SPNs
often are caused by a previous infection in the lung. Further tests can be done
to find out whether the SPN is noncancerous (benign) or cancerous
CT scan normally is done to help find out the growth
rate, the shape of the nodule, and the pattern of calcification in the nodule
to help identify whether it is cancerous.
Positron emission tomography (PET) scans are being
studied to find out whether they can help distinguish between noncancerous and
In general, the larger the SPN, the more likely it
is to be cancerous. Your doctor may use a probability
of cancer (PCA) table to help figure out the risk that an SPN is cancerous. Then
he or she may recommend follow-up testing with a biopsy or regular CT scans or,
if it is very likely the SPN is cancerous, the doctor may suggest finding out
its stage and removing it with surgery.
The following table shows
when solitary pulmonary nodule is likely or not likely to be cancer. None of
these are true in every case, but these factors are used to help decide whether
further testing or treatment is needed.1
A transthoracic needle aspiration (TTNA), which uses a long
needle inserted through the chest wall, can sometimes be used to remove a
tissue sample from an SPN. This usually is done if the abnormal lung tissue is
located close to the chest wall. Imaging procedures such as CT scan,
fluoroscopy typically are used to help guide the needle
to the right spot. Another possible test is bronchoscopy with transbronchial
biopsy (TBB). In this test, a flexible tube is inserted through the nose and
down to the lungs. A camera in the tube shows where the SPN is, and a tiny tool
in the same tube takes a small sample of the SPN tissue.
cancerous nodules can be identified through biopsy, but positive identification
of noncancerous nodules can still be difficult. If a biopsy shows cancer,
surgery can often remove the cancer. If your doctor determines that you have a
high risk of having a cancerous nodule, he or she may decide not to do this
test and instead recommend surgery to remove the nodule. A
pathologist looks at the nodule under a microscope to
see if it is cancer.
Follow-up testing for a noncancerous SPN
includes chest X-rays or CT scans as often as your doctor recommends to look
for any change in the size or shape of the nodule.
Chestnutt MS, Prendergast TJ (2012). Solitary pulmonary nodule section of Pulmonary Disorders. In SJ McPhee, MA Papadakis, eds., 2012 Current Medical Diagnosis and Treatment, 51st ed., pp. 283–284. New York: McGraw-Hill.
September 12, 2012
E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
& Michael Seth Rabin, MD - Medical Oncology
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