Diagnosing Lung Cancer

This information is useful for adults
Why Yale Medicine?
  • A multidisciplinary group of experts gathers at a weekly conference to discuss cases, which provides patients the benefit of many expert opinions.
  • Pathologists at Yale Medicine are highly specialized.
  • Our pathologists have unparalleled experience in the diagnosis of lung cancer in the region.

Lung cancer, one of the most common cancers in the world, is a leading cause of cancer-related death in men and women in the United States. Smoking cigarettes is usually the cause of lung cancer, but far from the only one. Risk factors also include exposure to asbestos, radiation and pollution, or a family history of the condition. Non-small cell lung cancers account for about 80 percent to 85 percent of lung cancer and small cell lung cancer makes up about 10 percent to 15 percent.

Yale Medicine's pathologists at are highly specialized—some specialize in bone and soft tissue pathology, related to the ribs, sternum and vertebral column, as well as hematologic conditions involving white cells that can form masses, particularly in the lymph nodes in the middle of the chest.

The doctor may order tests to look for cancer cells and to rule out other conditions. If symptoms suggest lung cancer, a chest X-ray or computerized tomography (CT) scan is the next step. Other tests include sputum cytology, which checks sputum (phlegm) for cancer cells, or a bronchoscopy, in which the doctor checks for abnormalities through a tube inserted down the throat to the lung. Depending on the results, a biopsy or surgery may be performed for further testing.

“Ultimately, looking at and analyzing lung tissue with a biopsy is an important step in diagnosing lung cancer,” says Robert Homer, MD, a pathologist who is a professor of medicine (pathology) at Yale School of Medicine.