What are the limitations of imaging for the evaluation of non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC)?

Updated: Aug 27, 2019
  • Author: Sat Sharma, MD, FRCPC; Chief Editor: Eugene C Lin, MD  more...
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Chest radiography remains the primary means of radiographic assessment of lung carcinoma. However, 12-30% of lung cancers are missed on chest radiographs. [20] A nodule smaller than 2-3 mm may not be detected by using chest radiographs, and overlapping soft tissue opacities may hide small endobronchial lesions. Chest radiographs depict indirect signs of endobronchial lesions such as obstructive pneumonia or atelectasis. These signs may well be secondary to benign tumors or mucus plugging or a foreign body. In a solitary lung nodule, probability of malignancy is approximately 40% overall; therefore, a nodule identified on a chest x-ray requires further diagnostic workup to exclude lung cancer.

The advantage of CT scanning in NSCLC is that it can be used to distinguish tumor from surrounding atelectatic lung. CT scans may be helpful in demonstrating superior vena cava compression, pericardial effusion, and lymphangitic dissemination in several other conditions. A major limitation of CT scanning is the inability to distinguish invasion from simple approximation to adjacent structures.

In staging of non–small cell carcinoma, CT has several limitations. Normal-sized mediastinal lymph nodes may contain microscopic metastatic deposits that are subsequently identified on thoracotomy in as many as 20% of patients. Similarly, enlarged inflammatory nodes may be falsely characterized as metastases in as many as 20% of patients.

The sensitivity and specificity of CT in detecting metastatic mediastinal lymph node involvement is in the range of 70-80%. CT scanning may have further limitations in distinguishing stage IIIA disease from stage IIIB disease. In a peripheral TI lesion, CT probably does not contribute, because chest radiography appears to be sufficient. CT is also limited in evaluating the extent of endobronchial abnormalities. CT may also be limited in evaluating and staging apical lung tumors.

For more guidelines, see the Medscape guidelines page.

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