Does a negative chest X-ray definitely mean I don’t have lung cancer?

Dr. Daniel Chamberlain is a radiation oncologist at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Question: Does a negative chest X-ray definitely mean I don’t have lung cancer?

Answer: Unfortunately, X-ray technology cannot always show a potential growth or tumor that might be cancer. On an X-ray, a tumor might look like a small shadow or be blocked by the ribs, making it hard to detect.

When an individual is experiencing possible symptoms of lung cancer, such as a persistent or worsening cough, shortness of breath, or chest pain, a doctor may recommend a chest X-ray to provide an initial evaluation of the lungs. This X-ray might reveal something unrelated to lung cancer, such as pneumonia or inflammation caused by other conditions.  Sometimes a CT scan is used for further evaluation.

People in high-risk categories, such as longtime smokers, may be referred for a lung cancer screening. This screening uses a low-dose computed tomography (CT) scan to view the lungs.  A CT scan can more accurately identify any growths or tumors in the lungs than a chest X-ray.  Recently, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommended annual screening with low-dose computed tomography for people with a significant smoking history who are between ages 55 to 80 years old and either currently smoke or have quit smoking within the past 15 years.

Lung cancer is very aggressive and often goes undiagnosed until its later stages, making it difficult to treat.  Patients experiencing any new symptoms should always consult with a physician to determine what tests or screenings might be appropriate.