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Benign Lung Tumors and Nodules

How Are Benign Lung Nodules and Tumors Diagnosed?

How does your doctor know whether or not a lung nodule is benign? In addition to taking a history and doing a physical exam, your doctor may simply "watch" a nodule, taking repeated X-rays, over a period of two years, shorter if the nodule is smaller than 6 millimeters and your risk is low. If the nodule remains the same size for at least two years, it is considered benign. That's because benign lung nodules grow slowly, if at all. On the other hand, cancerous nodules, on average, double in size every four months. Your doctor may continue to a check your lung nodule each year for up to five years to ensure that it is benign.

Benign nodules also tend to have smoother edges and have a more even color throughout as well as a more regular shape than cancerous nodules. In most cases, your doctor can check speed of growth, shape, and other characteristics such as calcification on a chest X-ray or CT scan.

It is possible that your doctor will order other tests, too, especially if the nodule changes in size, shape, or appearance. These may be done to rule out cancer or determine an underlying cause of the benign nodule. They may also help identify any complications. You could have one or more of these tests:

  • Blood tests
  • Tuberculin skin test to check for TB
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan
  • Single-photo emission CT (SPECT)
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (in rare cases)
  • Biopsy, tissue removal, and examination under a microscope to confirm whether the tumor is benign or cancerous

A biopsy can be done using a variety of methods such as aspirating cells through a needle or removing a sample of them using bronchoscopy. This procedure allows your doctor to look at your airway through a thin viewing instrument.

Treatment of Benign Lung Nodules and Tumors

In many cases, your doctor may simply observe a suspicious lung nodule with multiple chest X-rays over several years. However, your doctor may suggest a biopsy or removal of an entire nodule in situations like these:

  • You are a smoker and the nodule is large.
  • You have symptoms.
  • A scan suggests the nodule might be cancerous.
  • The nodule has grown.

Surgery can often be done with small incisions and a short hospital stay. If your nodule is benign, you will not need any further treatment, except to manage any underlying problems or complications related to the nodule such as pneumonia or an obstruction.

If you need invasive surgery to remove a tumor, your doctor may recommend one or more tests beforehand to ensure your health. These might include blood tests or kidney, liver, or pulmonary (lung) function tests.

If needed, surgery may involve one of several procedures. Which surgery you have depends on the location and the type of your tumor or tumors. The surgeon may remove a small piece of tumor, one or more sections of a lobe, one or more lobes of the lung, or an entire lung. However, the surgeon will remove as little tissue as possible.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Jonathan L Gelfand, MD on May 14, 2012

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