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Ask Dr. K: Lung nodules may not indicate cancer

DEAR DOCTOR K: I saw my doctor because I’ve been getting short of breath. He did an X-ray and CT scan that found three small “pulmonary nodules.” Do I have lung cancer?

DEAR READER: The tests we have available today – particularly imaging tests – are much better at spotting possible problems than the tests available when I was in medical school. But how good are they at giving you a clear answer to the simple question: “Do I have something to worry about, doctor?” Not very good at all.

Pulmonary nodules are a good example. The term nodule usually describes a small rounded growth or lump. Nodules can be a sign of cancer. But more often they are benign (noncancerous) growths.

Pulmonary nodules are found in the lung and have several possible causes. These include:

• Lung infections, including infections that occurred years or decades ago.

• Exposure to lung irritants, such as coal dust or silica.

• Abnormal blood vessels.

• Lung cancer.

• Cancer that started in another organ and spread to the lung.

To determine what caused your nodules, your doctor will perform a thorough evaluation. This usually starts with your medical history.

Next, your doctor will review your X-rays. Certain characteristics may make the nodules appear more or less worrisome.

If a nodule is found on a regular X-ray, a doctor will likely order a computed tomography scan. Newer types of tests, such as positron emission tomography scans, can provide additional information to help your doctor determine what caused your nodule.

If your doctor believes your nodule is benign, he or she may recommend a repeat X-ray or scan in three to six months. If the nodule remains the same size, this is usually reassuring.

If your nodule looks suspicious or grows over time, you may need a biopsy. A small piece of the nodule will be removed and examined in a laboratory. That is the best way of knowing what you are dealing with.