For many people, the first sign they may have lung cancer is a suspicious (unusual) spot on a chest x-ray or a CT scan. An image alone, however, cannot tell us whether you have cancer, or what type of cancer it is.
Most people who come to MSK for a lung cancer diagnosis first meet with a surgeon. MSK surgeons work with pathologists, radiologists, and other lung cancer specialists to learn more about the type of lung cancer you have. They will find out how advanced it is. This information helps your disease management team develop the treatment plan that’s best for you.
First, your doctor will get a tissue sample using a procedure called a biopsy. Next, an MSK pathologist will examine the tissue sample under a microscope. Pathologists are doctors who look at cells to diagnose if you have cancer, and if so, what type. The pathologist will look very closely at the cancer cells’ shape and other features.
Knowing the type of lung cancer you have helps your doctors accurately stage the tumor. Each type responds differently to certain chemotherapy drugs. Once they know the cancer type and stage, your care team can choose the best treatment.
In addition to pathology tests, MSK performs molecular testing of tumors in all patients with non-small cell lung cancer. We are one of only a few hospitals in the world to offer this type of personalized medicine.
MSK experts are investigating other non-invasive early cancer detection methods apart from CT or PET imaging of the tumor. These include looking for lung cancer markers in a person’s exhaled breath, as well as examining small pieces of tumor DNA in a patient’s blood (liquid biopsy) using a test called MSK Access.