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 a chest 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 having the scan.
Immediately 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 have nausea (feel sick) or feel a sudden urge to pass urine (pee or wee). These sensations should go away quickly, but tell your doctor if you continue to 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. Getting ready for the scan can take 10–30 minutes, but the scan itself takes only a few minutes and is painless.
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. The Australian Government is considering introducing a lung cancer screening program.
Before having scans, tell the doctor if you have any allergies or have had a reaction to contrast (dye) during previous scans. You should also let them know if you have diabetes or kidney disease or are pregnant or breastfeeding.
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. For a lung function test, 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.
Podcast: Tests and Cancer
A/Prof Brett Hughes, Senior Staff Specialist Medical Oncologist, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, The Prince Charles Hospital and The University of Queensland, QLD; Dr Brendan Dougherty, Respiratory and Sleep Medicine Specialist, Flinders Medical Centre, SA; Kim Greco, Nurse Consultant – Lung Cancer, Flinders Medical Centre, SA; Dr Susan Harden, Radiation Oncologist, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; A/Prof Rohit Joshi, Medical Oncologist, GenesisCare and Lyell McEwin Hospital, Director, Cancer Research SA; Kathlene Robson, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council ACT; Peter Spolc, Consumer; Nicole Taylor, Lung Cancer and Mesothelioma Cancer Specialist Nurse, Canberra Hospital, ACT; Rosemary Taylor, Consumer; A/Prof Gavin M Wright, Director of Surgical Oncology, St Vincent’s Hospital and Research and Education Lead – Lung Cancer, Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre, VIC.
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