What is Involved in a PET Scan for Lung Cancer?

Erin J. Hill
Erin J. Hill
Cigarettes, which are closely associated with lung cancer.
Cigarettes, which are closely associated with lung cancer.

A positron emission tomography (PET) scan may be used in the detection of lung cancer if a patient displays the symptoms of cancer and has had an unusual X-ray or another scan. Performing a PET scan for lung cancer involves injecting a patient with a radioactive solution and allowing it to circulate through the blood. It reacts with cancerous cells in the body and allows a clearer picture of a cancer’s stage and physical properties. The tumors are viewed using a specialized scanner which is designed to pick up images of the radioactive materials.

A human respiratory system.
A human respiratory system.

Most of the time, patients who are receiving a PET scan for lung cancer have already had an unusual reading using another test. Sometimes X-rays and other scans cannot detect whether a lump is malignant and they can often pick up less serious illnesses and display them similarly to cancers. For instance, pneumonia and lung cancer appear very similar on an X-ray.

During a PET scan, the patient is injected with a radioactive tracer, which circulates through the blood.
During a PET scan, the patient is injected with a radioactive tracer, which circulates through the blood.

Use of a PET scan for lung cancer allows doctors to get a clear picture of the tumor in question. They are able to see the size, shape, density, and how far the cancer cells have spread beyond the original site. This allows even small cancers to be detected and enables doctors to prescribe the most beneficial treatments.

The radioactive solution used during a PET scan for lung cancer is generally glucose. It travels through the blood quickly and does not cause any side effects. The amount of radioactive materials found in this solution is not harmful to the body, and the scan itself is also safe for humans. Once the injection has been done, patients generally have to wait for an hour or more so that it can fully circulate throughout the body. Patients may be advised to refrain from eating, beginning at midnight before the procedure.

PET scans are able to detect anomalies in greater detail than X-rays can.
PET scans are able to detect anomalies in greater detail than X-rays can.

If a PET scan shows a cancerous tumor, treatment can generally be begun right away. When using a PET scan for lung cancer, it is primarily used to stage a cancer that has already been detected or to re-stage an existing tumor. Since this type of scan can detect even microscopic cancer cells, it can easily show if they have spread to other areas in the body.

The only discomfort a patient should feel as a result of a PET scan is due to not eating for several hours before the procedure. This allows the glucose to be more concentrated in the blood since sugar from food will be lessened. Additional side effects do not generally occur with a PET scan.

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    • Cigarettes, which are closely associated with lung cancer.
      Cigarettes, which are closely associated with lung cancer.
    • A human respiratory system.
      A human respiratory system.
    • During a PET scan, the patient is injected with a radioactive tracer, which circulates through the blood.
      During a PET scan, the patient is injected with a radioactive tracer, which circulates through the blood.
    • PET scans are able to detect anomalies in greater detail than X-rays can.
      PET scans are able to detect anomalies in greater detail than X-rays can.