An early diagnosis of cancer usually means less invasive treatment and better outcomes. Until recently, it was difficult to detect lung cancer in its early stages since symptoms generally don't appear until the disease is somewhat advanced. At that point, treatment must be aggressive and outcomes, statistically, are poorer.

Now, a scan of the lungs can identify a spot, or nodule, in the lung when it is still quite small, and easier to treat. Radiologists use computed tomography or 'CT' scans, using low doses of radiation. CT combines x-ray with computer technology to produce cross-sectional images of the body and has proven to be quite effective in identifying small nodules in the lungs. In fact, studies have shown that low dose CT can lower the risk of death from lung cancer by 20 percent in people who are at high risk. Low dose CT is available at eight locations throughout the Main Line Health system.

Learn more about low dose CT

If the scan reveals a nodule, you want to know quickly how serious it is. At Main Line Health, a nurse navigator works with you, your primary care physician and a pulmonologist to review the findings and determine a treatment plan that's right for you.

In many instances, a lung nodule is quite small and treatment is not indicated at this time. It does, however, require diligent monitoring and regularly scheduled follow-up. Your physicians will discuss the findings with you and recommend next steps.

Learn more about the Lung Nodule Program

Depending on the size and location of the nodule, further action may be recommended right away. This usually involves a pulmonologist getting a tissue sample from the lung either through a CT guided needle, a bronchoscopy (a tube into the lungs) or an endobronchial ultrasound. All of these procedures are minimally invasive and can be done on an outpatient basis with no overnight stay in the hospital.

The tissue sample is then read by a pathologist to determine if cancer is present. The goal is to provide results of the biopsy to your physician within 48 hours. If cancer is detected, it's important to know how far it has progressed. This is called 'staging,' and may require additional imaging, either using a PET scan or MRI. A PET scan, or positron emission tomography, reveals the metabolic activity of a tumor or how likely the cancer is to spread. It allows the surgeon to chart a precise course for the tumor removal.

There are four stages of lung cancer, with stage 1 being the smallest and least invasive, and stage 4 indicating that the disease is more widespread.

Once the diagnosis and staging are complete, your clinical team will review the findings together and determine your individual treatment plan.

Together, your Main Line Health lung cancer team works hard to diagnose your disease and begin your plan of treatment quickly.