Houston Methodist. Leading Medicine.
Houston Methodist. Leading Medicine

Diagnosing Lung Cancer

Diagnosing Lung Cancer

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Symptoms of Lung Cancer

Lung cancer may cause one or more of the following symptoms:

  • A cough that gets worse or does not go away
  • Shortness of breath
  • Constant chest pain
  • Coughing up blood
  • Hoarseness
  • Frequent lung infections, such as pneumonia
  • Persistent fatigue
  • Unexplained weight loss

Keep in mind that these symptoms can also indicate conditions other than lung cancer. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, contact your doctor as soon as possible so that the cause can be diagnosed and treated promptly.

Screening for Lung Cancer

Houston Methodist Hospital’s Lung Cancer Screening Program offers tests for individuals who are at high risk for lung cancer. The program includes annual low-dose CT scans as well as consultations from health care providers, access to quit-smoking programs and referrals to specialists if lung cancer is found.

Diagnostic Tests for Lung Cancer

If you experience symptoms of lung cancer or if a screening test shows signs of the disease, your doctor may recommend one or more of the following tests:

  • Physical Exam: Your doctor will listen to your breathing and check for fluid in the lungs.
  • CT Scan: This imaging method uses X-rays and a computer to create cross-sectional pictures of your lungs.
  • Biopsy: Your doctor takes a cell sample so that a pathologist can examine it for the presence of lung cancer. There are several different methods for obtaining cell samples:
    • Sputum Cytology: Your doctor will ask you to cough up some phlegm and take a sample of the mucus.
    • Thoracentesis: Your doctor uses a long needle to remove fluid from inside the lungs (pleural fluid).
    • Bronchoscopy: A thoracic surgeon or a pulmonologist passes a thin, flexible tube with a light on the end into the mouth or nose, down through the main windpipe, and into the breathing passages of the lungs. Tiny tools inside the tube can be used to take samples of fluid or tissue.
    • Fine-Needle Aspiration: Your doctor uses a thin needle to remove tissue or fluid from the lung or from a lymph node, sometimes guided by a CT scan or other imaging method.
    • Thoracoscopy: A thoracic surgeon makes several small incisions in your chest and back and uses a thin, lighted tube to look at the lungs and nearby tissues. If an abnormal area is seen, a tiny tool passed through the tube to take a cell sample.

Staging Lung Cancer

If lung cancer is diagnosed, the next step is to determine the extent, or stage, of the disease so that your doctor can devise a course of treatment.

The staging process for lung cancer has five possible outcomes:

  • Stage 0: Cancer cells are in situ (“in place”) and have not spread to any nearby tissues.
  • Stage I: The tumor is small and has not spread to the lymph nodes, which makes it possible for a surgeon to completely remove it.
  • Stage II: The tumor is either slightly larger and has not spread to nearby lymph nodes, or it is smaller and has spread to nearby lymph nodes.
  • Stage III: The tumor has spread to the lymph nodes or has invaded nearby structures in the lung, making it difficult if not impossible for a surgeon to remove.
  • Stage IV: The cancer has spread to multiple areas in the other lung, to the fluid surrounding the lung or the heart, or to distant sites such as the brain, bones, liver or adrenal glands.


Learn more about lung cancer:

For more information about lung cancer treatment at the Methodist Cancer Center or to make an appointment, call us at 713-441-LUNG (5864).