Estimating lung cancer risk from chest X-ray and symptoms: a prospective cohort study

Br J Gen Pract. 2021 Mar 26;71(705):e280-e286. doi: 10.3399/bjgp20X713993. Print 2021 Apr.


Background: Chest X-ray (CXR) is the first-line investigation for lung cancer in many countries but previous research has suggested that the disease is not detected by CXR in approximately 20% of patients. The risk of lung cancer, with particular symptoms, following a negative CXR is not known.

Aim: To establish the sensitivity and specificity of CXR requested by patients who are symptomatic; determine the positive predictive values (PPVs) of each presenting symptom of lung cancer following a negative CXR; and determine whether symptoms associated with lung cancer are different in those who had a positive CXR result compared with those who had a negative CXR result.

Design and setting: A prospective cohort study was conducted in Leeds, UK, based on routinely collected data from a service that allowed patients with symptoms of lung cancer to request CXR.

Method: Symptom data were combined with a diagnostic category (positive or negative) for each CXR, and the sensitivity and specificity of CXR for lung cancer were calculated. The PPV of lung cancer associated with each symptom or combination of symptoms was estimated for those patients with a negative CXR.

Results: In total, 114 (1.3%) of 8996 patients who requested a CXR were diagnosed with lung cancer within 1 year. Sensitivity was 75.4% and specificity was 90.2%. The PPV of all symptoms for a diagnosis of lung cancer within 1 year of CXR was <1% for all individual symptoms except for haemoptysis, which had a PPV of 2.9%. PPVs for a diagnosis of lung cancer within 2 years of CXR was <1.5% for all single symptoms except for haemoptysis, which had a PPV of 3.9%.

Conclusion: CXR has limited sensitivity; however, in a population with a low prevalence of lung cancer, its high specificity and negative predictive value means that lung cancer is very unlikely to be present following a negative result. Findings also support guidance that unexplained haemoptysis warrants urgent referral, regardless of CXR result.

Keywords: chest x-ray; early diagnosis; general practice; lung cancer; primary care; radiograph.

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Lung Neoplasms* / diagnostic imaging
  • Lung Neoplasms* / epidemiology
  • Lung*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Radiography
  • Radiography, Thoracic
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • X-Rays