If you have lung cancer, imaging tests like a chest X-ray will typically show a visible mass or nodule in your lungs. It will look like a white spot against the backdrop of a black lung.

An estimated 238,340 in the United States will be diagnosed with lung cancer by the end of 2023. Lung cancer is the second most common form of cancer in men and women in the United States.

Though a lung cancer diagnosis is serious, new and increasingly effective treatments are being researched every day. Early diagnosis and treatment may lead to a positive outlook.

Though lung cancer is common and can feel scary, the number of new lung cancer cases is decreasing, most likely due to positive lifestyle changes in the population and new treatments.

Here are some pictures to illustrate what lung cancer looks like.

Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC)

Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is the most common type of lung cancer, making up about 80-85% of all cases. There are three main subtypes of NSCLC: Adenocarcinoma, large-cell carcinoma, and squamous-cell carcinoma.

  • Adenocarcinoma: This is cancer that begins in the cells that secrete substances like mucus.
  • Large cell carcinoma: This type can appear in any part of the lung and spread faster than other types.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma: This cancer starts in cells that line the airways called squamous cells. The cancer cells tend to be found near major airways.

There are also two less common types of NSCLC:

  • adenosquamous carcinoma
  • sarcomatoid carcinoma

Small cell lung cancer (SCLC)

Only about 10-15% of all lung cancers are SCLC. This type can spread quickly and is often more challenging to diagnose early.

SCLC often responds well to chemotherapy and radiation, though it may often recur after treatment.

Lung cancer tumors

Other types of tumors can also occur in the lungs. Called carcinoids, these tumors grow slower than other types of lung cancer.

Carcinoids typically form in the lungs’ airways — the bronchi (large airways) or bronchioles (narrow airways). A person may have different symptoms depending on where the tumor is growing, and the treatment may be different depending on where, exactly, the tumor is.

Carcinoids don’t usually spread to other areas of the body. They aren’t caused by smoking.

Several tests will allow your doctor to make a lung cancer diagnosis:

Chest X-ray

If you have any symptoms of lung cancer, your doctor may order a chest X-ray. A chest X-ray of someone with lung cancer may show a visible mass or nodule.

This mass will look like a white spot on your lungs, while the lung itself will appear black. However, an X-ray may not be able to detect small or early-stage cancers.

CT scan

A computed tomography (CT) scan is often ordered if there is something abnormal on the chest X-ray. A CT scan takes a cross-sectional and a more detailed image of the lung. It can give more information about abnormalities, nodules, or lesions — small, abnormal lung areas seen on X-ray.

A CT scan can detect smaller lesions not visible on a chest X-ray. Cancerous lesions can sometimes be distinguished from benign lesions on chest CT scans.

Your doctor cannot diagnose cancer with only an image from a CT scan or an X-ray. If they are concerned about the results of image tests, they will order a tissue biopsy.

Sputum cytology

If you can produce phlegm when you cough, microscopic cancer cells may be seen in this form of screening.


In a biopsy, your physician will take a tissue sample from your lungs for examination.

This sample may be removed via a tube placed down your throat (bronchoscopy), an incision at the base of the neck (mediastinoscopy), or by making an incision in the chest wall and using a needle to collect the sample.

A pathologist can then analyze this sample to determine if you have cancer. More testing may be needed to determine if the cancer has spread to other areas.

What is stage 1 lung cancer like?

This depends, first of all, on the type of lung cancer you have. In the case of NSCLC, stage 1 is when the cancer has not yet spread past the tumor itself to the lymph nodes or anywhere else.

What are the three warning signs of lung cancer?

Usually, you wouldn’t develop symptoms of lung cancer until your disease is advanced. If you’re experiencing a cough, shortness of breath, hoarseness, or any other signs that might be associated with lung cancer, and these symptoms do not improve with treatments for things like a viral illness or pneumonia, ask your doctor for a screening.

Can you see lung cancer on the skin?

In rare cases, lung cancer can affect your skin. If you notice any yellowing of your skin (jaundice) or unusual skin lesions, speak with your doctor as soon as possible.

Lung cancer is one of the most common types of cancer and may require quick and aggressive treatment. Some major milestones have been reached in clinical research to find more effective methods of treating it.

If you’re worried about the risk of lung cancer, speak with your doctor about screening and prevention. They can help you determine what steps to take to treat or prevent lung cancer and any related conditions.