Lung cancer tests
Checking for lung cancer usually involves a number of tests.
The tests you have depend on your specific situation and may include:
- Initial tests
- Tests to confirm diagnosis
- Further tests to see if the cancer has spread
The first test is usually an x-ray, which is often followed by a CT scan. You may also have a breathing test to check how your lungs are working and blood tests to check your overall health.
A chest x-ray is painless and can show tumours 1 cm wide or larger. Small tumours may not show up on an x-ray or may be hidden by other organs within the chest cavity.
A CT (computerised tomography) scan uses x-ray beams to create detailed, cross-sectional pictures of the inside of your body. This scan can detect smaller tumours than those found by chest x-rays. It provides detailed information about the tumour, the lymph nodes in the chest and other organs.
CT scans are usually done at a hospital or radiology clinic. You may be asked to fast (not eat or drink) for several hours before the scan. Before the scan, you will be given an injection of a liquid dye into a vein. This dye is known as contrast, and it makes the pictures clearer. The contrast may make you feel hot all over and leave a bitter taste in your mouth, and you may feel a sudden urge to pass urine. These sensations should go away quickly, but tell your doctor if you feel unwell.
The CT scanner is a large, doughnut-shaped machine. You will need to lie still on a table while the scanner moves around you. The scan itself is painless and takes only a few minutes, but getting ready for it can take 10–30 minutes.
A low-dose CT scan may be useful for screening healthy people for lung cancer or to follow-up suspicious-looking spots in the lungs. This uses a lower dose of radiation than a regular CT scan and provides a more detailed image than an x-ray. Currently, the Australian Government is looking at how low-dose CT screening could be used in Australia.
Before having scans, tell the doctor if you have any allergies or have had a reaction to contrast during previous scans. You should also let them know if you have diabetes or kidney disease or are pregnant.
Lung function test (spirometry)
This test checks how well the lungs are working. It measures how much air the lungs can hold and how quickly the lungs can be filled with air and then emptied. You will be asked to take a full breath in and then blow out into a machine called a spirometer. You may also have a lung function test before you have surgery or radiation therapy.
A sample of your blood will be tested to check the number of red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets (full blood count), and to see how well your kidneys and liver are working.
A/Prof Nick Pavlakis, President, Australasian Lung Cancer Trials Group, President, Clinical Oncology Society of Australia, and Senior Staff Specialist, Department of Medical Oncology, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW; Dr Naveed Alam, Thoracic Surgeon, St Vincent’s Private Hospital Melbourne, VIC; Prof Kwun Fong, Thoracic and Sleep Physician and Director, UQ Thoracic Research Centre, The Prince Charles Hospital, and Professor of Medicine, The University of Queensland, QLD; Renae Grundy, Clinical Nurse Consultant – Lung, Royal Hobart Hospital, TAS; A/Prof Brian Le, Director, Palliative Care, Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre – Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and The Royal Melbourne Hospital, and The University Of Melbourne, VIC; A/Prof Margot Lehman, Senior Radiation Oncologist and Director, Radiation Oncology, Princess Alexandra Hospital, QLD; Susana Lloyd, Consumer; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Nicole Parkinson, Lung Cancer Support Nurse, Lung Foundation Australia.
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