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Lung cancer health centre

Lung cancer - How do doctors diagnose lung cancer?

BMJ Group Medical Reference

Doctors will ask you questions and do some tests to diagnose lung cancer.

Seeing your doctor

If you have symptoms that are worrying you, you should go to your doctor. Your doctor is likely to:

  • Ask you about your symptoms

  • Listen to your breathing through a stethoscope

  • Refer you to your local hospital for a chest x-ray

  • Refer you to a hospital specialist.

Having a chest x-ray

A chest x-ray takes pictures of your lungs to see if there are any signs of lung cancer or another illness.

Your doctor will refer you for an urgent x-ray if you are coughing up blood. You'll also be referred for an urgent x-ray if you have any of the following symptoms without a clear reason for more than three weeks:[23]

  • Coughing

  • Pain in your chest, shoulder, or both

  • Shortness of breath

  • Unexpected weight loss

  • Chest sounds that aren't normal

  • A hoarse voice

  • A change in shape of the ends of your fingers (called clubbing)

  • Symptoms that could be explained by cancer that has spread to other parts of your body (for example, pain in your bones)

  • Swellings in your neck or above your collar bone. This might mean you have cancer in your lymph nodes.

When your doctor gets the results of the x-ray, he or she can decide whether you need to see a specialist.

Seeing a specialist

If your chest x-ray shows signs of lung cancer, you should be offered an urgent appointment with a specialist. You may also be offered an urgent appointment if your chest x-ray looks normal but your doctor still thinks you might have lung cancer.

If you have one the following symptoms, your doctor may send you straight to hospital to see a specialist as soon as possible, without awaiting the results of your chest x-ray.[23]

  • You've been coughing up blood for more than three weeks and you're over 40 and a smoker or an ex-smoker

  • You have a swelling on your face and neck because of a blockage in one the main veins that run down the sides of your neck (called the jugular veins).

  • You make a harsh, high pitched sound when you breathe (called stridor).

The specialist will ask you about your symptoms and listen to your breathing through a stethoscope. He or she will look at your chest x-rays if you've had some done, or arrange for them to be carried out if you haven't. Your specialist may also arrange for some other tests.

Other tests

A CT scan

If you have an abnormal chest x-ray, your doctor will probably order a CT scan of your chest for a closer look.

A CT scan is a special type of x-ray that uses a computer to get a more detailed picture of your lungs. X-rays and CT scans can show if there is anything abnormal about your lungs. But they can't tell the difference between harmless (or benign) lumps and cancerous (malignant) lumps. In order to find out for certain whether you have cancer, you need to have a biopsy of any abnormal-looking lumps seen on the x-ray or CT scan.

A PET-CT scan
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Last Updated: September 27, 2013
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.
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