Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) involves the growth of cancerous cells within lung tissues. Diagnostic tests for this form of cancer include physical exams, lab tests, imaging tests, and biopsies.

About 230,000 people receive a lung cancer diagnosis each year in the United States. Around 80–85% of lung cancer cases are NSCLC.

There are several types of NSCLC, including adenocarcinoma, large cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma.

Individuals experiencing symptoms of NSCLC may first visit a doctor for a physical exam and medical history. They may then undergo blood testing for NSCLC markers. If blood testing indicates NSCLC, imaging tests and biopsy can confirm the diagnosis.

This article discusses the process of receiving an NSCLC diagnosis from symptoms to treatment options.

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People who notice signs of NSCLC should visit a doctor for a physical exam. These signs may include:

During a physical exam, a medical professional will determine which symptoms are present. They may also check for any growths or lumps that may indicate NSCLC.

As part of this initial assessment, a doctor may also evaluate a person’s medical history. Individuals may be at higher risk of developing NSCLC if they have:

Anyone at risk for NSCLC should keep a close eye on their lung health. In some cases, a healthcare professional may recommend a person has regular lung cancer screening.

If someone notices NSCLC symptoms, they should visit a doctor as soon as possible. Receiving an early NSCLC diagnosis can improve a person’s outlook.

If a doctor suspects an individual has NSCLC, they will order further lab testing. Some lab tests for NSCLC include:

Blood tests may involve a complete blood cell count and a comprehensive metabolic panel. Healthcare professionals use these tests to look for markers that may indicate NSCLC.

During the sputum cytology test, a pathologist examines a sample of mucus that a person coughs up. A pathologist looks at this sample under a microscope to determine whether cancer cells are present.

Finally, a doctor may also recommend thoracentesis. In this procedure, a medical professional takes a sample of fluid located between the lung and the chest. They then use a microscope to look for cancer cells in this sample.

Once a doctor diagnoses NSCLC, they may also recommend a urine test to check for genetic mutations by finding high levels of a protein called epidermal growth factor receptor. This can help identify treatment options.

Certain imaging tests can also help in the process of an NSCLC diagnosis. These tests may include:

The first area where doctors perform imaging is typically the chest. But medical professionals may also perform these tests on the upper abdomen and head. These imaging tests may show a doctor where tumors are and whether they have spread beyond the lungs.

For doctors to confirm an NSCLC diagnosis, a biopsy is necessary. There are different types of lung biopsy procedures. During a biopsy, a medical professional removes a tissue sample from a patient’s lungs. They will then evaluate the sample with a microscope to look for signs of cancer.

A tissue biopsy can also help determine the staging of NCSLC. Identifying the NSCLC stage helps doctors develop an effective treatment plan.

The treatment for NSCLC depends on the individual, the NSCLC subtype, and the cancer stage. Some of the most common treatment options include:

Some individuals with NSCLC may decide to join a clinical trial. These trials investigate emerging treatments that are not yet available to the public.

People living with NSCLC should speak with their doctor to determine which treatment is best for them. A healthcare professional can provide individual recommendations for treating NSCLC.

The most common type of lung cancer is NSCLC. This form of lung cancer includes a number of subtypes, but the diagnostic process is similar for each.

Initial diagnostic evaluations involve a physical examination and medical history. If they suspect NSCLC, doctors will perform lab tests, imaging tests, and biopsies. These tests help to confirm the presence of NSCLC as well as the cancer stage.

People should speak with their doctor if they think they are experiencing symptoms of NSCLC, or to determine their risk of developing NSCLC. Receiving an early NSCLC diagnosis may improve someone’s recovery outlook.