What are the Different Types of Lung Cancer Scan?

Matt Brady

The first type of lung cancer scan one would likely undergo is a basic chest x-ray, after which one might be subjected to a Computerized Tomography (CAT or CT) scan—a more advanced x-ray procedure. One may then receive a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) lung cancer scan, which uses magnetic fields instead of radiation to provide dozens of incredibly detailed images. If necessary, a doctor might also order a Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scan, which involves injecting a small amount of radioactive liquid into the patient; doctors then observe how the liquid moves through lung tissue.

Medical professionals examine chest X-rays for indications of lung cancer.
Medical professionals examine chest X-rays for indications of lung cancer.

Basic chest x-rays are often able to catch images of tumors, although very small tumors may not be easy to spot. Usually, three separate x-rays will be taken in a session: one from the back, one from the front, and one from the side. The different angles give doctors a better chance to spot any possible lung cancer. Patients won't likely experience any discomfort with this procedure.

Basic chest x-rays are often able to detect tumors.
Basic chest x-rays are often able to detect tumors.

A CT lung cancer scan involves lying on a table and sliding into the center of a large scanner. The scanner uses a rotating x-ray beam to take many more images than a basic chest x-ray is able to. The images are not only more numerous, but also provide doctors with a better look at the lungs. There really isn't any discomfort with this test, although some people may feel antsy or claustrophobic while inside the scanner.

A person is required to lay down and be very still while in a CAT scanner.
A person is required to lay down and be very still while in a CAT scanner.

An MRI lung cancer scan uses radio waves and magnetic fields to provide in-depth images of the chest. The patient lies on a table that is slid into the center of an MRI scanner. The scanner has a magnet that is able to produce powerful magnetic waves. The waves pass through the body, causing hydrogen atoms in the body to rearrange; radio waves signals are then bounced off of the atoms. By reading the signals, a computer is then able to gather detailed images of the lungs and chest. A dye also may be injected into the patient to help pick up clearer images. Some people feel intense claustrophobia while inside the scanner; in such cases, patients may be given calming medication prior to the procedure.

Doctors sometimes rely on computerized tomography (CT) images to help scan for lung cancer.
Doctors sometimes rely on computerized tomography (CT) images to help scan for lung cancer.

In some cases, a person may also undergo a PET lung cancer scan. With this procedure, a small amount of radioactive fluid is injected into the patient, after which he or she is slid onto a table and into the center of a PET scanner. Doctors are then able to use the scanner to show images of the fluid coursing its way through the lungs. This allows doctors to see how the lungs are actively working. If the fluid pools up abnormally or travels in weird patterns, it can help doctors identify tumors.

If fluid pools up abnormally in the lungs, it may be an indication of a tumor.
If fluid pools up abnormally in the lungs, it may be an indication of a tumor.
MRI scans can be used to view abnormalities inside the lungs.
MRI scans can be used to view abnormalities inside the lungs.
A CT lung cancer scan uses a rotating x-ray beam to take more images in a faster time than possible with a basic chest x-ray.
A CT lung cancer scan uses a rotating x-ray beam to take more images in a faster time than possible with a basic chest x-ray.

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