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How Am I Tested
for Lung Cancer?

The types of test an oncology team uses will depend on the timing of the test, as well as what the team suspects they should be looking for. Healthcare professionals in Canada follow guidelines to determine who is eligible for testing, and when, based on a patient's particular case history.

Healthcare teams have several ways to diagnose lung cancer, but often use one of two options: invasive or non-invasive.

  1. Invasive procedures mean that there is a break in the skin or something enters a body cavity, such as through your mouth
  2. Non-invasive procedures refer to those for which there is no break in your skin or entry into a body cavity

Sputum cytology (non-invasive)

For this test, mucus (or sputum) is coughed up from the lungs. Then some of it is put under a microscope to see if there are any abnormal cells. This test is useful for finding tumours that may be growing in the airways of the lungs.

Computed tomography (CT) scan (invasive or non-invasive)

Also called a CAT scan, this test is like having an x-ray. It lasts a little bit longer because it takes lots of pictures from many different angles. The CT scanner does this by moving in a circular motion around the body as the person lies still on a table. The person being tested usually needs to have a contrast solution (a mixture that helps create detailed images of the lungs and other soft tissues like lymph nodes) in their body first. The doctor will decide whether they drink it or if it is injected into their body through a vein. Doctors get a lot of important information from this test such as where and how big the cancer is.

Biopsy (invasive or non-invasive)

For an even closer examination of the abnormal growth, a small sample can be removed by performing a biopsy. The doctor may perform a surgical removal of part of the growth by extracting a sample with a needle or a long thin tube, or the doctor may choose to take a blood sample to perform a kind of liquid biopsy to look for tumour DNA circulating in the blood stream (called ctDNA). ctDNA can also be detected in a new and non-invasive type of liquid biopsy, called urine biopsy. Either way, doctors take a biopsy so that they can view it under a microscope.

Mutation tests (invasive or non-invasive)

Mutation tests (also known as molecular profiling) are very specific and look for certain changes in a person's cancer genes. In these cases, your treatment team takes a tumour specimen and runs tests on it to see if a targeted drug therapy could be effective in fighting the specific cancer cells. Note that not all cancers will be right for this type of treatment.

Mutation status can be determined using various sample types. The most common include cytology samples, biopsies and ctDNA, though other methods are beginning to emerge or are being developed to help determine biomarker status in patients with lung cancer. To learn more about mutation testing, please see the section "What Mutations Are Tested."