Diagnosis of Lung Cancer
A diagnosis of lung cancer can involve a battery of tests but the first port of call is usually a local general practitioner. The GP will ask about current symptoms and take a full medical history. In particular they will want to know whether a person smokes and also their work history to see whether they may have come into contact with asbestos.
This will enable the doctor to build up a whole picture before referral onto a hospital for specialist tests.
What Special Tests Diagnose Lung Cancer
Once under the care of a consultant a chest x-ray will probably be the first test to discover any abnormalities in the lungs.
Sometimes a large mass or small white patches can be seen on the x-ray. These may or may not indicate cancer – harmless calcium deposits in the lung can look like cancer nodules.
More than likely a bronchoscopy will be done. This usually happens under local anesthetic (which numbs the throat) in an outpatients’ department. A small tube is placed down the throat into the airway to see if there are any abnormalities. Sometimes a sample of tissue may be taken to be examined under a microscope for cancer cells.
A mediastinoscopy, done under general anesthetic, is a procedure which examines an area in the centre of the chest between the lungs. This area contains the heart, major blood vessels and lymph nodes. The surgeon makes a small cut into the neck and places a tube into the area (known as the mediastium) to examine it and take tissue samples.
A lung biopsy takes just a few minutes. A very thin needle is inserted into the abnormal area of the lung (already indicated by a chest x-ray) and a cell sample is sucked out through a syringe.
A thorocoscopy is done under general anesthetic and can take tissue samples from the lung and lymph nodes in the mediastium. Several small cuts are made in the lung and a tube is inserted either to suck out a fluid sample or take a tissue sample.
Generally anyone of these tests can diagnose lung cancer. Once it’s diagnosed doctors then need to discover the extent of the disease to decide on the best course of treatment.
Computer Tests for Diagnosing Lung Cancer
A computerized tomography (CT) scan takes x-rays of the inside of the body and can show exactly where the cancer is and whether it has spread.
A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan is more detailed in that it can identify different tissue types more precisely and therefore give a better indication of how, or if, the disease is spreading.
To check if the cancer has spread to the bones a bone scan may be done. However it’s worth remembering that any abnormalities that do show up could be down to general wear and tear or arthritis.
One of the most advanced – and not widely available - scans is a positron emission tomography (PET) scan which measures how active cells are in different areas of the body. Areas affected by cancer are usually far more active than the tissue around it.
There may be a whole battery of bewildering tests before cancer is diagnosed – or ruled out. It’s very unlikely that a person will have all of them. The important thing is to know why you are having a specific test and what the results of that test mean. So don’t be afraid to ask questions – knowledge often helps to reduce the inevitable fear of the disease.