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August 25, 2023

What Does a Lung Nodule Diagnosis Mean?

What Does a Lung Nodule Diagnosis Mean?

It can be easy to think the worst when your doctor detects a nodule in your lung. But it’s important to remember that, more often than not, lung nodules are not cancerous (benign) and can be treated effectively when caught early. Here are some things to know about lung nodules and what to expect if one has appeared on your chest X-ray or CT scan.

What Are Lung Nodules, and What Causes Them?

An abnormal growth that forms in the lung is referred to as a lung (pulmonary) nodule. Lung nodules are fairly common and found in up to half of adults who undergo a chest imaging test for some other health condition.

Lung nodules form as a small clump of cells — often after a lung infection. Over time, these cells can calcify (become hard), making them more visible on chest X-rays. In some cases, only a single node is present, while in others, the nodes are multiple in number. If your physician went over the chest scans with you, they might have described it as a “shadow” since it appears as a white spot on the x-ray. Nodules vary in size, ranging from 3mm to 25mm or more in diameter. Lung nodules less than 9 mm are considered small.

Other than a previous infection, possible causes of lung nodules include air irritants in your lungs over time and autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and sarcoidosis.

Although most lung nodules are benign, they can sometimes be an early sign of lung cancer.

Lung Cancer Screening Finds Nodules in High-Risk Patients

In addition to smoking being the number one cause of lung cancer, it can increase the likelihood of nodules developing in the lungs because smoke is a lung irritant. Low-dose CT scans can be used to check your lungs and screen for lung cancer if you meet all three parts of the following criteria:

  • You are between the ages of 50 and 80 years old

  • You have a “20-pack-year” smoking history

  • You currently smoke or have quit within the last 15 years

According to the CDC, a “pack-year” is smoking one pack of cigarettes per day for a year. Ten pack years could be from an individual who smoked a pack a day for 10 years or somebody who smoked two packs a day for five years. If you’re ready to kick the habit, read our blog with 10 tips for quitting tobacco use to reduce your risk of lung cancer.

Your doctor will review the scan and determine if an area of concern needs to be monitored or even perhaps biopsied to check for lung cancer. Most insurance plans, including Medicare, usually cover patients who qualify for lung cancer screening.

Related Reading: Should I Be Screened for Lung Cancer?

Determining If the Lung Nodule is Cancerous

If you have a pulmonary nodule, there are a few different courses of action your healthcare team can take. Even though roughly 95% of lung nodules are harmless, your doctor will still need to determine whether your nodule is cancerous. To do this, your provider will:

  • Assess your personal risk for lung cancer. Certain risk factors, such as being over the age of 50, having a larger nodule, smoking, or having a family history of lung cancer, may increase the chance of a nodule being cancerous.

  • Look over your imaging results and order more images if necessary. The size of your nodule is small enough to watch over time. This is called active surveillance. However, larger nodules will need to be evaluated further, which might require additional tests, such as another CT or PET scan, to determine the cause and rule out lung cancer.

  • Perform a procedure called a biopsy if needed. Other tests can suggest cancer, but a biopsy is the only way to confirm it. Biopsies are often done for nodules 9 mm or larger. Depending on your personal case, you might be scheduled for a biopsy procedure that will allow your physician to retrieve a tissue sample from the nodule.

Once a biopsy is performed, the tissue that is removed will be sent to a lab so a pathologist can check it for cancer, infection, scar tissue, and other lung problems. If cancer is found, then special tests will be done to find out what kind of cancer it is.


When Should a Lung Nodule Be Treated?

Typically, small, non-cancerous nodules don’t require treatment and can be safely monitored with routine imaging. If the lung nodules don’t interfere with breathing, then no treatment may be needed.

With that said, there are times when symptoms do occur — usually when a nodule grows and begins to press on the airway. If this happens, symptoms may start to appear, including coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, or respiratory infection. If you have a known lung nodule that is being monitored, be sure to contact your physician if you:

  • Experience a change in your cough or cough up blood

  • Develop new shortness of breath, chest pain, fever, or chills

  • Lose a lot of weight without trying to

  • Would like more information about your nodule and options

The fact that the nodule starts to present symptoms does not automatically mean it’s cancerous. However, any symptom such as these warrants a closer look so you can find relief and treatment if necessary.

Read our related blog: 11 Surprising Signs of Lung Cancer You Need to Know

Expert Lung Cancer Care in South Chicago

If you have been told that your lung nodule is cancerous, your healthcare provider can discuss the next steps with you. This usually involves meeting with an oncologist who specializes in lung cancer. Try to relax and keep in mind that it was likely caught at an early stage of lung cancer when it can be treated with surgery and/or radiation. The time spent monitoring your nodule should not affect your chances of effective lung cancer treatment.

The lung cancer doctors at Affiliated Oncologists are here to help by providing you with state-of-the-art, personalized care for your lung cancer. We also offer second opinions on treatment plans as you consider your next steps.

Request an appointment with one of our lung cancer specialists at the cancer center nearest you. Our locations include Chicago Ridge, Mokena, Hazel Crest, Oak Lawn, and Palos Heights, IL.

Categories: Lung Cancer