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How Does My Doctor Know I Have Lung Cancer?

If you’re having lung-cancer-like symptoms, your doctor will want to know why. Your doctor is likely to ask you questions about your:

  • Medical history

  • Smoking history

  • Family history of cancer or smoking

  • Exposure to other risk factors

In addition to asking you questions, your doctor may also do these things:

  • Perform a physical exam, which will include listening to your breathing.

  • Give you a sputum cytology test. For this test, each morning for three to five days, you collect the substance that you spit up from your lungs, called sputum. A pathologist then looks at the sputum under a microscope for cancer cells. Not all types of lung cancer show up in this test.

  • Schedule an X-ray of your chest to look for masses in your lungs.

  • Arrange for other imaging tests to get a better picture of your lungs. This may include a computed tomography (CT) scan and also perhaps a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test.

The results of these exams may be enough to rule out lung cancer. Or you may require further tests. Your doctor may need to remove fluid or tissue from a suspicious area found in a lung. This is called a biopsy. There are many ways to do biopsies for lung cancer, ranging from bronchoscopy (putting a thin, flexible tube down the mouth or nose and into the lungs) to different types of surgery. 

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