How is small cell lung cancer diagnosed?

Tests and procedures that examine the lungs are used to detect (find), diagnose and stage small cell lung cancer. The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • An x-ray of the organs and bones inside the chest may be done to make a picture of areas inside the body.
  • An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of a person's health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
  • A CT scan (CAT scan) of the brain, chest and abdomen may be done. This procedure makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography or computerized axial tomography.
  • A PET scan (positron emission tomography scan) is a procedure to find malignant tumor cells in the body. A small amount of radioactive glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein. The PET scanner rotates around the body and makes a picture of where glucose is being used in the body. Malignant tumor cells show up brighter in the picture because they are more active and take up more glucose than normal cells do.
  • Sputum cytology is when a microscope is used to check for cancer cells in the sputum (mucus coughed up from the lungs).
  • A bronchoscopy is a procedure to look inside the trachea and large airways in the lung for abnormal areas. A bronchoscope is inserted through the nose or mouth into the trachea and lungs. A bronchoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It may also have a tool to remove tissue samples, which are checked under a microscope for signs of cancer.
  • A fine-needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy of the lung involves the removal of tissue or fluid from the lung using a thin needle. A CT scan, ultrasound or other imaging procedure is used to locate the abnormal tissue or fluid in the lung. A small incision may be made in the skin where the biopsy needle is inserted into the abnormal tissue or fluid. A sample is removed with the needle and sent to the laboratory. A pathologist then views the sample under a microscope to look for cancer cells. A chest x-ray is done after the procedure to make sure no air is leaking from the lung into the chest.

Doctors may perform one or more of several tests to diagnose small cell lung cancer. Most tests may be broken down into different categories: non-invasive imaging procedures, invasive imaging procedures and biopsies.

Non-invasive imaging procedures, such as x-rays, CT (CAT) scans, and PET scans, use various technologies to create pictures of your lungs without surgery or inserting equipment into your body. Invasive imaging procedures, such as thoracoscopy and bronchoscopy, involve inserting special camera equipment through an incision between the ribs (thoracoscopy) or the nose or mouth (bronchoscopy) to view the lungs and surrounding areas closely. Biopsies, such as fine-needle aspiration, thoracentesis, and sometimes thoracoscopy, involve removing tissue or fluid from the lungs or surrounding areas to examine in a lab for cancer.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.