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Lung cancer health centre

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How is lung cancer diagnosed?

There is no general screening programme for lung cancer in the UK. Tests for lung cancer may be arranged if a person sees a doctor for symptoms such as being out of breath, having a persistent cough or coughing up blood.

A physical examination will be carried out, and the doctor will ask about risks, such as being a smoker.

Tests may also be carried out to rule out other conditions, such as chest infections.

If a doctor suspects lung cancer, referrals will be made for tests which may include:

Chest X-ray

Chest X-rays can show tumours in the lungs, but cannot show the difference between a tumour and other lung conditions, such as an abscess. Further tests may be arranged.

CT scan

The CT scan, short for computerised tomography, takes many X-ray images to give doctors computer generated images of the lungs. A special contrast dye injection is given before the scan to help enhance the images.

PET-CT scan

A PET-CT scan, or positron emission tomography-computerised tomography scan, takes images after the patient has been given an injection of safe radioactive material to help detect early stage lung cancer.


After a mild sedative is given, the bronchoscopy procedure uses a thin tube passed down the throat into the lungs through the mouth or nose. A tissue sample or biopsy is then taken for laboratory testing.


Other biopsy procedures for lung cancer include:

  • Percutaneous needle biopsy using a needle passed through the skin.
  • Thoracoscopy biopsy is done with a thin tube passed through incisions in the skin.
  • Mediastinoscopy is done under general anaesthetic with a camera built into a tube passed into the mediastinum area of the chest between the lungs.


After the tests have been completed, and the type of lung cancer diagnosed, a cancer specialist will assess how far the cancer has grown or spread in a process called staging.

Stages of lung cancer range from Stage 1, where the cancer remains inside the lung, to Stage 4, where the cancer has spread to both lungs or to another part of the body.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on May 25, 2016

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