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Lung cancer

How is lung cancer diagnosed?

In this section, we explain the process for diagnosing lung cancer and the different tests you can expect.

If your doctor thinks you might have lung cancer, you’ll be referred to a special clinic at the hospital called the rapid access clinic or urgent cancer clinic. If you live in England, you should see a specialist within 2 weeks of referral. There are similar targets for the rest of the UK.

At your first appointment you’ll usually see a doctor who specialises in lung diseases. The doctor will ask you about your symptoms and medical history. They will also examine you. You can help by bringing a list of any medicines you’re taking.

The doctor will explain the results of any tests you’ve had and will tell you what further tests you need. These might include:

  • a CT scan (NHS website): this uses a special X-ray machine to produce a detailed image of the inside of your body. Before having a CT scan, you’ll be given an injection containing a dye that makes your lungs show up more clearly. You may already have had a CT scan by the time of your first appointment
  • a biopsy (NHS website): this is when a sample of tissue is taken from the tumour
  • a bronchoscopy: this is when your doctor uses a thin, flexible telescope, called a bronchoscope, to look inside your lungs. The bronchoscope is passed through your nose or mouth and down your windpipe. If the tumour is visible, your doctor can take a sample
  • an endobronchial ultrasound (EBUS): this is similar to a bronchoscopy. It uses a thin, flexible tube like a bronchoscope, which has an ultrasound scanner in the tip. This is passed into the windpipe through the mouth. It allows the doctor to scan and take tissue samples of lymph nodes in your chest
  • PET-CT scan (NHS website): this is a painless procedure where you’re injected with a slightly radioactive substance which can be detected by a scanner to show if the cancer has spread to other areas of your body

These tests will help your doctor find out where the cancer is in your body and what stage it’s at. This means how big it is and how much it has spread.

Stages of cancer

There are different stages of lung cancer (NHS website).

Working out the stage differs for different types of cancer. Here’s an example of one way:

  • stage 0 – the cancer is where it started and hasn’t spread
  • stage 1 – the cancer is small and hasn’t spread anywhere else
  • stage 2 – the cancer has grown, but hasn’t spread
  • stage 3 – the cancer is larger and might have spread to surrounding tissues or lymph nodes
  • stage 4 – the cancer has spread from where it started to at least one other organ. This is also known as secondary or metastatic cancer

Your treatment

Next, you’ll see your specialist doctor or nurse to discuss your test results and treatment options. You’ll be offered the types of treatment best for you. You might want to talk to your family or a doctor you know well before deciding about your treatment. It is by this appointment you should meet your clinical nurse specialist.

If you have more questions, or want to talk to someone, you can call our helpline on 0300 222 5800.

The multidisciplinary team

You will be looked after by a team of health care professionals who specialise in diagnosing and treating lung cancer. This is called a multidisciplinary team

The doctor or nurse you see at your first appointment is part of the team.

Another important member of the team is your lung cancer clinical nurse specialist. They are there to support you through your diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. You can contact them between your scheduled hospital visits.

The team also includes oncologists (cancer specialists), radiologists (specialists in radiology which is used to diagnose and treat cancer), pathologists and surgeons. They meet every week to discuss your test results and plan your care.

Next: what is the treatment for lung cancer? >

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Download our lung cancer PDF (79 KB)

Last medically reviewed: February 2020. Due for review: February 2023

This information uses the best available medical evidence and was produced with the support of people living with lung conditions. Find out how we produce our information. If you’d like to see our references get in touch.