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 - Northwestern Memorial Hospital - Chicago

Tests & Diagnosis

There are a number of tests and procedures that can be used to detect, diagnose and stage lung cancer. If your physician suspects you may have lung cancer or lung disease based on your symptoms and risk factors, he or she may recommend tests and procedures that can confirm or rule out cancer. Some of the most commonly used are:

Imaging Tests

Imaging tests are often used to aid in the diagnosis of lung cancer. The most commonly used tests include:

Chest X-ray

Chest X-rays are simple images of the chest that may be able to reveal abnormal masses or nodules in the lung.

CT scan (computed tomography scan)

CT scans involve taking a series of detailed, cross-sectional images of areas of the body. When testing for lung cancer, the CT scan would be of the chest. Chest CT scan images are reformatted by a computer to generate two- and three-dimensional renderings of the lungs and are often able to reveal small lesions in the lung that may not be caught on a chest X-ray.

PET scan (positron emission tomography scan)

PET scans use radioactive glucose that is injected into a vein to look for cancer masses. Cancerous tumors are more active than normal cells, so they take up more glucose than the normal cells. When the glucose is taken up into tumors and the PET scanner takes photos of the area being scanned, the images will reveal brighter areas where the tumors reside, due to the increased uptake of glucose.

Sputum Cytology

Sputum is the medical word for mucus that has been coughed up from the lungs. Sputum cytology is a test of the sputum that involves looking at the sputum under a microscope for the presence of cancer cells.

Tissue Sampling (Biopsy)

There are a number of ways to check tissue samples for the presence of lung cancer. The most common procedures are:

Fine-needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy of the lung

During a fine-needle aspiration (FNA), a thin needle is used to remove tissue or fluid from the lung. During the FNA, physicians use imaging procedures, such as a CT scan or ultrasound, to find the abnormal tissue or fluid. Once it is located, they insert the biopsy needle into the tissue or fluid, and a sample is removed for testing. That biopsied fluid or tissue is then sent to a laboratory to be tested for the presence of cancer cells.


A bronchoscopy involves looking for abnormal areas inside the trachea (windpipe) and the central bronchi (large airways) in the lungs. During the procedure which is performed under light sedation, a lighted, flexible tube-like instrument is placed through the nose or mouth into the trachea and lungs, allowing physicians or surgeons to visualize the areas. If any abnormalities are found or suspected, surgeons can also remove tissue samples during the procedure. Any tissue samples are then checked for signs of cancer.

Contact Us

If you are concerned about lung cancer or other lung diseases, please contact your physician to discuss ways to reduce your risk and whether or not you should be screened for cancer. If you do not have a physician, you may request a first time appointment with a member of our thoracic oncology team by calling 312-695-3800 or call our Physician Referral Service at 1-877-926-4664. You may also request a first time appointment online.

Last UpdateJune 10, 2011


To make an appointment with a physician, please call 1-877-926-4664.

New patients can request an appointment online.