What Is a Lung Cancer Diagnosis?

When a doctor diagnoses an illness in a patient, they are giving their professional medical analysis of what the source of the symptoms is. For those who have been exposed to a toxic substance, exposure damage may be a cause. As such, years of working and/or living in close proximity to hazardous substances could put you at risk for lung cancer and other illnesses – making it vital to catch the disease early.

For a majority of people, early screening can deliver a more favorable diagnosis. From then on, you can administer treatment earlier with a wider availability of curative and palliative therapy options. Typically, lung cancer is significantly easier to manage when diagnosed at its beginning stages.

Screening Versus Diagnosis

Doctors use screening and diagnostic tests for two reasons. A screening test is used primarily to detect early disease or risk factors in large numbers. After that, a diagnostic test formally establishes the presence of disease to develop a treatment plan. A doctor might administer cancer screenings to a person who comes in with concerns and detect oddities or learn that the person carries a high risk for a certain illness. Then, the doctor will perform a diagnostic test to validate the results of the screening.

Getting a Lung Cancer Diagnosis

Those with concerns about lung cancer should visit their primary physician for a screening. If the doctor decides a diagnostic test is necessary, they will administer the appropriate tests on the patient. There are several tests medical professionals can give depending on the patient’s symptoms. After the diagnosis is made, the doctor can begin developing a treatment plan in expectation of how the cancer will develop (also known as its prognosis). Diagnostic tests used for cancer patients include:

This is an icon representing a CT scan for lung cancer.

Computed Tomography (CT) Scan

CT scans utilize a series of X-ray images taken from multiple angles around the suspected area. Doctors then use computer processing software to arrange the photos and get an up-close look at bones, blood vessels, and soft tissues inside the body. CT scans give a more complete, detailed look than X-rays alone.

This is an icon resembling a PET scan for Lung Cancer

Positron Emission Tomography (PET) Scan

Another imaging test, PET scans help show how tissues and organs are functioning. First, the doctor administers a radioactive drug known as a tracer to highlight the target area and get a better look. The tracer can be injected, swallowed, or inhaled depending on the area it must go. It builds up in areas of the body that have excessive levels of chemical activity, which correlate with the activity in diseased areas.

This is an icon resembling a bone scan.

Bone Scan

Changes or abnormalities in bones can be detected with bone scans. A bone scan is also known as a radionuclide scan, bone scintigraphy, or nuclear medicine bone scan. Irregularities detected in the scan can be called hot spots, but don’t always mean cancer. A CT scan may be needed to detect illness further if a bone scan comes back with unclear hot spots.

Lung Cancer Misdiagnosis

Lung cancer can sometimes be mistaken for a rare form of cancer known as pleural mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is similar to lung cancer in that it develops in the lungs, but different in that tumors will metastasize (grow) in the lining of the lungs or the pericardium, instead of within the lungs themselves. If a doctor misdiagnoses your illness, there’s no way for you to know until you get a second opinion.

Have a detailed discussion with your doctor on your screening and diagnosis results. If your doctor determines you have lung cancer and you have any concerns with the validity of the diagnosis, you can always (and have the right to) get a second opinion from another doctor. Your doctor can also inform you of the steps to take that may help improve your prognosis.

Some Questions to Ask Your Doctor

For most people, visiting the doctor to talk about potential illnesses can be intimidating. In stressful situations, it can be helpful to have a list of prepared questions that are important to ask your doctor before and after your diagnosis, so you don’t forget anything.

This is an icon of a question mark, symbolizing a question being asked by a patient.

Before your diagnosis:

  • How common is lung cancer?
  • What types of lung cancer are there?
  • What are the causes? What caused my disease?
  • What are my risk factors? How high of a risk am I for getting lung cancer? Why?
  • What type of screening and diagnostic tests do you recommend for my situation? Why?
  • How long does it take to get my results back?
  • What can I expect from this test?


This is an icon of a question mark, symbolizing a question being asked by a patient.

After your diagnosis:

  • What does my diagnosis mean? What type of lung cancer do I have?
  • What treatment plan do you recommend, and how will this affect my day-to-day?
  • How much does treatment cost? What does my insurance cover?
  • What are the symptoms I may experience?
  • What other resources are available to me?
  • What are clinical trials, and can these help my situation?
  • What clinical trials are in my area?
  • What lifestyle habits will aid me through treatment and after?
  • Is there any integrative medicine that can help ease the side effects of treatment?
  • Do I need a second opinion?

Next Steps

If you suspect you need a lung cancer screening to receive a proper diagnosis, get in to see your doctor immediately. Make sure you’re specific about the details of your situation and why you believe you may be at risk. This way, your doctor can accurately assess the risk level and how best to move forward. Each person’s case is unique.