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Lung cancer diagnosis

A number of tests will be performed to investigate symptoms of lung cancer and confirm a diagnosis. Some of the more common tests include:

  • Sputum cytology – where the doctor collects sputum from the lungs and looks at it under a microscope.
  • Imaging of the lung and nearby organs, which may include chest X-ray, computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Bronchoscopy – to get a good look inside the windpipe and the bronchi (the two tubes that carry air from the windpipe to the lungs), the doctor may use a bronchoscope. This is a thin flexible tube with a light and a video camera on the end. The tube goes in through your nose or mouth. (You have a local anaesthetic, so that it doesn't hurt – although it might be uncomfortable.) The doctor can see inside your airways on a TV.
  • Biopsy – the only way to be absolutely sure whether something unusual in the lungs is cancer is to look at a bit of it under a microscope. This is called a 'biopsy' – taking a sample of tissue (biopsy) from the lung for examination under a microscope. Sometimes a piece of the suspected cancer can be collected through the bronchoscope, the tube that's used to look at the airways.
  • Fine needle aspiration – if the suspicious-looking bit of lung can't be reached with the bronchoscope, your doctor may use a thin, hollow needle to take a small piece of the lung out through the chest. It's done with a local anaesthetic so that it doesn't hurt. This is called 'fine needle aspiration'.

Sometimes the doctor has to do an operation to get a piece of the tumour for a biopsy. But usually it can be done with the bronchoscope or fine needle aspiration.

Just diagnosed

People often feel overwhelmed, scared, anxious and upset after a diagnosis of cancer. These are all normal feelings.

More information can be found on the Cancer Australia website,, or the Australian Lung Foundation website,

Sometimes it is helpful to talk to others about your experience. Cancer Council Australia offers support for you and your loved ones via their helpline on 13 11 20.

Sources: Cancer Australia (What is lung cancer), Cancer Council Australia (Lung cancer), NHS Choices, UK (Lung cancer)

Last reviewed: August 2015

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