What tests are involved in staging lung cancer?

Staging is the process of finding out if and how far lung cancer has spread. The treatment plan and prognosis depend on the stage of the cancer. A staging system is a standard way for doctors to describe how large a cancer is and how far it has spread. The stage is based on the results of the physical exam, biopsies and imaging tests.

The TNM staging system for lung carcinoid tumors and non-small cell lung is used to describe the:

  • Tumor
  • Nodes (lymph nodes)
  • Metastasis (if the cancer has spread)

Small cell lung cancer may also be staged as limited versus extensive. In the limited stage, the cancer is only in one lung and perhaps in lymph nodes on the same side of the chest, an area that is small enough to be treated with radiation.

If the cancer has spread to the other lung, to lymph nodes on the other side of the chest or to distant organs, it is called extensive. Many doctors also consider cancer that has spread to the fluid around the lung as extensive stage.

Dr. Brian D. Mott, MD
Cardiothoracic Surgeon

Most commonly lung cancer is staged clinically first with CT scans, PET scans, and Brain MRI. There are then possible staging procedures done like bronchoscopy, endobronchial ultrasound, mediastinoscopy, and finally VATS procedures. These are usually done to see if someone has advanced disease that would make surgery not indicated. The final staging is done after surgery by the pathologist who examines the type of cancer, the size and invasiveness of the tumor, and if any regional lymph nodes are involved. This allows the calculation of the TNM stage from 1 through 4.

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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.