A lung cancer diagnosis tells patients what stage of cancer they are in and what their long-term chances are for survival. For the two main types of this disease, small and non-small cells, there are various ways to communicate the diagnosis.
Small cells (SCLC) are classified as "large", which means that cancer cells are metastatic, or as "limited", which means that this does not happen. Most small cell cases are diagnosed late and are believed to have spread to some extent. Non-small cells (NSCLC) are divided into four stages. A diagnosis of stage 1a-b or 2a-b means that the disease is still in its infancy and is easily treated.
Level 3a and higher are considered advanced. With advanced cancer, tumour growth can occur that affects vital organs or structures. This can also mean that it has reached the lymph nodes or has spread to other body parts or to all three regions.
Most patients with NSCLC initially experience a number of symptoms. This includes bloody coughing caused by malignant cells being torn in the airways. It may also include chest pain, hoarseness, or difficulty breathing and swallowing. The same symptoms rarely occur in the early stages of SCLC, so around 40 per cent are only recognized at an advanced stage.
If a problem is suspected, the chest radiograph is usually done first. If abnormalities are found, additional tests are done to confirm the presence of cancer. CT scans (computed tomography) often follow X-rays. Computer tomography is a 3D imaging technology that gives doctors a better perspective on the chest area. To determine cell histology, a biopsy can be taken from lung tissue. In some cases, sputum samples from the airways are sufficient to make a diagnosis.
In some patients, doctors use MRI or PET scanning to get a better view of the lungs. MRI stands for magnetic resonance imaging (imaging), while PET scans use radioactive energy to identify areas of actively growing cells. Diagnostic methods vary depending on the difficulty in finding cancer, the person's age, and other risk factors.