A lung cancer diagnosis tells the patient what stage their cancer is in and what their long term chances of survival are. For the two main types of this disease, small-cell and non small-cell, there are different ways of communicating a diagnosis.
Small-cell (SCLC) is classified as ‘extensive’, meaning the cancerous cells have metastasized, or ‘limited’ meaning they have not. Most small cell cases are diagnosed late and are assumed to have spread to some degree. Non small-cell (NSCLC) is classified in four stages. A diagnosis of stage 1a-b or 2a-b means the disease is still in its early stages and easier to treat.
Stages 3a and beyond are considered advanced. An advanced cancer may have a tumor growth obstructing vital organs or structures. It can also mean it has reached the lymph nodes or metastasized to other regions of the body or all three.
In most NSCLC patients a number of symptoms present early on. These include bloody cough, which is caused by ruptured malignant cells in the airways. It can also include chest pains, developing a hoarse voice or difficulty breathing and swallowing. These same symptoms rarely present in the early stages of SCLC, which is why an estimated 40 percent are not found until they are in advanced stages.
If a problem is suspected, a chest x-ray is usually performed first. If abnormalities are found, further tests will be performed to confirm the presence of cancer. CT scans (computed tomography) will often follow x-rays. Computed tomography is a 3D imaging technology which provides doctors with a greater perspective of the chest area. To determine the cell’s histology, biopsies can be taken from the lung tissue. In some cases, a sputum sample from the airways will be sufficient to make a diagnosis.
For some patients, doctors will use an MRI or PET scan to get a better view of the lungs. An MRI stands for a magnetic resonance (image), while a PET scan uses radioactive energy to define areas with actively growing cells. Diagnostic methods will vary depending on the difficulty encountered finding the cancer, the person’s age and other risk factors.