Your doctor will start by taking your health history. He or she will ask about your smoking habits and whether you live with a smoker. Your doctor also will ask whether you may have been exposed to asbestos or other cancer-causing agents at work.
Next, he or she will order imaging tests to check your lungs for masses. In most cases, a chest x-ray will be done first. If the x-ray shows anything suspicious, a CT scan will be done. As the scanner moves around you, it takes many pictures. A computer then combines the images. This creates a more detailed image of the lungs, allowing doctors to confirm the size and location of a mass or tumor.
You may also have a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan or a positron emission tomography (PET) scan. MRI scans provide detailed pictures of the body's organs, but they use radio waves and magnets to create the images, not x-rays. PET scans look at the function of tissue rather than anatomy. Lung cancer tends to show intense metabolic activity on a PET scan. Some medical centers offer combined PET-CT scanning.
If cancer is suspected based on these images, more tests will be done to make the diagnosis, determine the type of cancer, and see if it has spread. These tests may include the following:
After the cancer has been diagnosed, it is assigned a "stage." The stage indicates the tumor's size and how far it has spread. Stages I through III are further divided into "A" and "B" categories. Stage I tumors are small and have not invaded surrounding tissues. Stage II and III tumors have invaded surrounding tissues and/or organs and have spread to lymph nodes. Stage IV tumors have spread beyond the chest.
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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.
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