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Year : 2008  |  Volume : 3  |  Issue : 6  |  Page : 79-81
Radiologic workup of lung cancer

King Abdulaziz Medical City for National Guard, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Correspondence Address:
Sara Al Ghanem
Department of Medical Imaging (Mail code 1222), P.O. Box 22490, Riyadh 11426
Saudi Arabia
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

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Imaging plays an important role in the management of lung cancer. Imaging studies are used for diagnosis and to determine the stage of the disease as well as to assess tumor response and, thus, guide further treatment of patients. This manuscript will review the use of imaging studies in the management of lung cancer.

Keywords: Lung cancer, imaging, workup

How to cite this article:
Al Ghanem S. Radiologic workup of lung cancer. Ann Thorac Med 2008;3, Suppl S2:79-81

How to cite this URL:
Al Ghanem S. Radiologic workup of lung cancer. Ann Thorac Med [serial online] 2008 [cited 2022 Dec 9];3, Suppl S2:79-81. Available from:

   Non-Small-Cell Carcinoma (NSCLC) Top

The treatment and prognosis of patients with NSCLC depend on the disease staging (i.e., the determination of the anatomic extent of disease at initial presentation). [1],[2] Uniform criteria for reporting the findings of clinical and / or pathologic evaluation are important for the initial management of patients with NSCLC. Radiologic imaging is directed at detecting nonresectable disease (T4 or N3 or M1). [1],[2],[3]

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) has published evidence-based guidelines for the diagnostic evaluation of patients with NSCLC. [4] In the staging of locoregional disease, these guidelines recommend that a chest radiograph and contrast-enhanced chest CT, which should include the liver and the adrenal glands, should be performed. In addition, the ASCO recommendations state that a whole-body FDG-PET should be performed when there is no evidence of distant metastasis on CT scan. [4] This recommendation is based on the fact that FDG-PET imaging improves the detection of nodal and distant metastases and frequently alters patient management. [5],[6]

FDG-PET plays a substantial role in identifying patients as surgical candidates who, otherwise, might be considered to have unresectable tumors. Treatment can be altered in up to 41% of cases on the basis of the FDG-PET findings. [5],[7] The high sensitivity and high negative predictive value of FDG-PET in most malignant tumors enables this technique to play an even a greater role in tumor management at initial staging and follow-up. Staging with CT and MRI has been reported to have a sensitivity of 50-60%, while mediastinoscopy has a sensitivity of 87% and a specificity of 91%. In comparison, a recent comprehensive study reported that PET scan has a sensitivity of 93% and a specificity of 99%. [8]

Owing to its high negative predictive value (about 94%), FDG-PET, combined with chest CT preoperatively, may alleviate the need for surgical staging in FDG-PET-negative cases. However, when there is a positive FDG-PET result, further diagnostic procedures should be done to avoid overstaging. [9] Integrated PET-CT scanners can also determine the precise anatomic location of focal increased uptake, increasing accuracy of staging. [10],[11],[12]

The use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

MRI can usefully complement CT scan; its major advantage over CT is the high-density resolution that it can provide. It is mainly used to assess involvement of major blood vessels, trachea, carina, or chest wall, and to look for cardiac and diaphragmatic invasion. Furthermore, MRI is superior to CT scan in the evaluation of superior sulcus tumors. [13],[14],[15]

Endoscopic ultrasound (US)

Endobronchial US permits identification and localization of mediastinal lymph nodes during flexible bronchoscopy and permits more reliable needle aspiration of small lymph nodes. [16] It is highly sensitive. A sensitivity of 92% and a specificity of 100%, comparable to that of surgical staging, was reported in paratracheal, subcarinal, and hilar lymphadenopathy. [17],[18]

Transesophageal endoscopic US is also highly accurate in mediastinal staging. It is highly sensitive in the detection of metastatic disease in lymph nodes, particularly in the subcarinal, inferior mediastinal, and aortopulmonary regions. [19]

Evaluation of pleural effusion

The majority of pleural effusions are due to involvement of the pleura by tumor (T4), however, effusions could be parapneumonic or sympathetic, in which case the presence of the effusion does not upstage tumor nor preclude resection. Cytologic examination will detect approximately 65% of malignant effusions. If the first thoracentesis is negative, a second one should be performed. If the second thoracentesis is also negative, thoracoscopy to look for pleural metastasis is recommended. [20],[21],[22],[23] Aspiration of the pleural effusion under imaging guidance may be needed, especially in cases of small or loculated effusions.

Radiology workup for NSCLC

All patients should have a contrast-enhanced CT scan of the chest and upper abdomen including adrenal glands and liver.

  • Stage I (A and B): PET scan, if available
  • Stage II A: PET scan, if available. Brain MRI for nonsquamous histology
  • Stage II B: PET scan, if available MRI brain MRI spine and thoracic inlet for superior sulcus tumor abutting the spine or the suclavian vessels
  • Stage III A: PET scan; if not available, bone scan. MRI brain MRI spine and thoracic inlet for superior sulcus tumors abutting the spine or the suclavian vessels
  • Stage III B: PET scan; if not available, bone scan. Brain MRI Thoracentesis or pericardiocentesis. If two thoracentesis attempts are negative, perform thoracoscopy
  • Stage IV with solitary metastasis: PET scan; if not available, bone scan. Brain MRI
  • Stage IV with disseminated metastasis: Workup as clinically indicated


Follow-up should include CT scan of the chest every 4-6 months for 2 years; after this period, CT scan of the chest should be done annually.

   Small-Cell Lung Carcinoma (SCLC) Top

Most patients with SCLC have extensive disease at the time of diagnosis. SCLC is staged into: 1) limited disease, where the primary tumor and nodal involvement are limited to one hemithorax and 2) extensive stage, when disease has spread beyond the limits defined for limited disease.

There is no consensus regarding the imaging and invasive procedures that should be performed for staging and evaluation of patients with SCLC. MRI has been advocated because of its ability to assess the liver, adrenals, brain, and axial skeleton in a single study. PET-FDG may improve the accuracy of staging of patients with SCLC. However, experience with PET in SCLC is still limited and it is not used in routine staging.

Routine brain MRI is recommended even if there is no evidence of metastasis at presentation, because CNS metastases are common and can be asymptomatic. [24],[25],[26] Obtaining CT or MRI of the abdomen is also recommended as a routine procedure in the staging of SCLC, because metastasis to the liver (30%) and retroperitoneal lymph nodes (11%) are common and often asymptomatic and liver function tests could be normal. [25] Bone scan is routinely performed for the same reason. Additionally, bone marrow aspiration can be performed if clinically indicated.

Radiology workup in SCLC

  • CT scan of chest and abdomen
  • MRI of the brain
  • Bone scan
  • PET scan is optional and not routinely recommended
  • Thoracentesis is recommended if there is pleural effusion and can be followed by thoracoscopy if the tap is negative.


CT of the chest, adrenal glands, and liver should be done to check response to treatment; brain CT or MRI is recommended if brain radiation has been given. The imaging studies of the chest and upper abdomen should be repeated every 4-6 months in the first 2 years. A new nodule, appearing after 2 years, is to be considered as a new neoplasm and worked up accordingly.

In summary, imaging studies are very important in the management of patients with lung cancer and should be used as recommended so that patients get the best possible care.

   References Top

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