Diagnosis & Staging

How does my doctor know which kind of lung cancer I have?

When you are diagnosed with lung cancer, your doctor may talk about your cancer’s histology and molecular profile. These are terms that describe the kind of lung cancer you have and will help your doctor understand which treatments you need.

  • Histology is what your cancer cells look like under a microscope
  • Molecular profile describes the kinds of biomarkers, important information found in your biopsy

How is lung cancer diagnosed?

Often times, several tests and procedures are performed to detect, diagnose and determine how far your lung cancer may have spread. The most common include:


  • A physical exam and medical history to check for signs of disease and understand your health habits, including your smoking history


  • Laboratory tests of tissue, blood and urine to diagnose lung cancer and keep an eye on the disease


Imaging that can show “pictures” of tumors in the body:

  • Chest x-ray of the lungs and bones inside the chest
  • CT (CAT) scan that makes pictures of areas inside the body with a computer linked to an X-ray machine
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) using a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body
  • PET scan that uses a small amount of radioactive sugar to light up cancer cells in the body, making them easy to see
  • Radionuclide bone scan that checks for cancer cells in the bone


Procedures to detect cancer in the body:

  • Pulmonary function test to check how quickly air moves in and out of the lungs
  • Endoscopic ultrasound (EUS) using a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and lens to look at internal tissues and organs
  • Mediastinoscopy, surgery to look at the organs, tissues and lymph nodes between the lungs
  • Anterior mediastinotomy, or Chamberlain procedure, surgery that looks at organs and tissues between the lungs and between the breastbone and heart
  • Lymph node biopsy to test part of the lymph node for cancer cells
  • Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy to look for signs of cancer in the bone marrow and blood

What are the different kinds of lung cancer?

There are two main kinds of lung cancer.


Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is the most common form, accounting for 85 percent to 90 percent of all lung cancers. Within NSCLC, there are many different subtypes. The most common are:

  • Large cell carcinoma, which can appear in any part of the lung and tends to grow and spread quickly. This type of lung cancer is very similar to small cell lung cancer.
  • Adenocarcinoma, which is usually found in the outer part of the lung and grows more slowly than other types of lung cancer. This kind usually occurs in current or former smokers, but is also the most common type diagnosed in non-smokers. It is more common in women than in men. It is also more likely to occur in younger people.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma, which is often linked in patients with a history of smoking. It is most often found in the central part of the lungs, near the main airway (bronchus).


Small cell lung cancer (SCLC) occurs in about 10 percent to 15 percent of lung cancers. SCLC is sometimes called oat cell cancer. It is fast-growing and tends to spread more quickly than non-small cell lung cancer.

What are the stages of lung cancer?

Once you have been diagnosed with lung cancer, your doctor will check to see if it has spread to other organs in your body. This is called ‘staging.’ It is important to know the stage of your cancer in order to make your treatment plan. There are many stages of lung cancer. Once you know your diagnosis and stage, you can learn more by visiting the American Cancer Society:

What is a genetic mutation?

A genetic mutation is a change in your cell that allows the cancer to grow and spread. There are many genetic mutations that can take place with lung cancer and this is an important area of research for scientists.

What is a Low-Dose CT Scan for Lung Cancer Screening?

Early detection is a proven, successful strategy for fighting many forms of cancer. Multiple locations across Infirmary Health System are now offering a screening with low-dose computed tomography (CT) for people who are at high risk for lung cancer, the only recommended screening test for the disease. A lung cancer navigator is available to answer questions, explain required criteria and assist people in obtaining a physician order for the screening. For more information please call 251-435-2273 (CARE).