Being diagnosed with lung cancer

If your GP suspects your symptoms could be due to lung cancer, they’ll refer you to a specialist for further tests. You will have a chest x-ray to check your lungs for anything abnormal.

A number of tests are used to diagnose lung cancer. You won’t always need all of them:

  • CT scan – this takes a series of x-rays to build a three-dimensional image of the lungs.
  • Bronchoscopy – this allows the doctor or nurse to examine inside the lung airways and take samples of the cells. This is done under local anaesthetic.
  • Lung biopsy – during the test a thin needle is passed through your skin and into the lung. A sample of cells is taken and examined. This is usually carried out under local anaesthetic during a CT scan to make sure the needle is in the right place. You may have to stay in hospital for a few hours after this procedure.
  • Fine needle aspiration – during this test, a sample of cells is taken from the lymph nodes in the neck.

It can take a few days to a couple of weeks for test results to be ready.

How lung cancer is diagnosed

Most people are diagnosed after going to see their GP when they notice symptoms. Your GP will examine you and arrange for you to have tests. If your GP thinks your symptoms could be caused by lung cancer, they will arrange for you to have an urgent chest x-ray or possibly a CT scan.

It may take a few days to get the results. If the x-ray shows anything abnormal, your GP will refer you to a chest specialist urgently. You should see the specialist within two weeks.

Sometimes GPs may make an urgent referral before getting the result of the chest x-ray.


At the hospital

The specialist will ask you about your general health and any previous medical problems before examining you. They will explain which tests you need.

You may also see a specialist nurse before or after you have your tests.

Your doctor may arrange for you to have one or more of the following tests to diagnose lung cancer.


Chest x-ray

If you haven’t already had one, you will have a chest x-ray to check your lungs for anything that looks abnormal.


CT (computerised tomography) scan

A CT scan takes a series of x-rays, which build up a three-dimensional picture of the inside of the body. The scan takes 10–30 minutes and is painless. It uses a small amount of radiation, which is very unlikely to harm you and will not harm anyone you come into contact with. You will be asked not to eat or drink for at least four hours before the scan.

CT scan
CT scan

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You may be given a drink or injection of a dye, which allows particular areas to be seen more clearly. This may make you feel hot all over for a few minutes. It’s important to let your doctor know if you are allergic to iodine or have asthma, because you could have a more serious reaction to the injection.

You’ll probably be able to go home as soon as the scan is over.

CT scans can also be used to guide a biopsy, in which a small amount of tissue is taken to be examined under a microscope.

You can usually have this as day surgery. Sometimes a special type of CT scan called a PET/CT scan is used if there is only one small area in the lung that looks abnormal.


Bronchoscopy

A bronchoscopy is a test where a doctor or specially trained nurse looks at the insides of the airways (bronchus) and lungs. A tube called a bronchoscope is used and the test is carried out under local anaesthetic.

During a bronchoscopy, the doctor or nurse may take samples of cells (biopsies) from the lung or airway. Before your bronchoscopy, you’ll be asked not to eat or drink anything for a few hours.

Just before the test, you may be given a mild sedative to help you relax and a medicine to stop you from coughing.

The nurse or doctor sprays a local anaesthetic on to the back of your throat to make it numb. They then gently pass the bronchoscope into your nose or mouth and down into the lung.

A bronchoscopy usually takes about 15 minutes, or longer if you are having biopsies taken. After it’s over you should not eat or drink for at least an hour.

You can go home as soon as the sedation has worn off. You need someone to collect you from the hospital as you shouldn’t drive for 24 hours because of the sedation. You may have a sore throat for a couple of days.


Lung biopsy

This test is done in the x-ray department, usually during a CT scan for guidance.

You’ll be given a local anaesthetic first to numb the area. The doctor asks you to hold your breath for a few seconds, while they pass a thin needle through the skin and into the lung. They check the CT or x-ray picture to make sure the needle is in the right place.

The doctor removes a sample of cells from the tumour (biopsy). These are examined under a microscope for signs of cancer.

The biopsy may be uncomfortable, but it only takes a few minutes. After a lung biopsy, in a small number of people, air may get into the space between the layers that cover the lungs. This causes the lung to collapse (pneumothorax).

You may need to stay in hospital for a few hours after the biopsy to make sure there are no problems. Let your doctor or nurse know if you have any tightness or sharp pain in your chest or if you are breathless.


Fine needle aspiration from lymph node in the neck

Some people may have a sample of cells taken from the lymph nodes in their neck. First you have a local anaesthetic to numb the area. The doctor then inserts a very fine needle into the lymph node to withdraw a sample of cells. These are examined under a microscope for cancer cells. This test is done as an outpatient procedure, so you can go home the same day.


Waiting for test results

Waiting for test results can be a difficult time. It may take from a few days to a couple of weeks for the results of your tests to be ready. You may find it helpful to talk with your partner, family or a close friend. Your specialist nurse or one of the organisations listed on our database, can also provide support. You can also talk things over with one of our cancer support specialists on 0808 808 00 00.

Back to Tests and scans

Further tests after diagnosis

Further tests may be needed to help your doctors confirm the lung cancer diagnosis and to find out if the cancer has spread.