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Molecular Tumor Testing

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When your doctors suspected you had cancer, they had to take a small portion of your tumor (a biopsy) to have it examined. As part of that examination, a specialized doctor, called a pathologist, looked at your tumor cells under the microscope and found out you had lung cancer. The pathologist should also have been able to tell whether you have small cell lung cancer or non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC).

Now, more detailed testing can be done on your tumor if your doctor requests it. These tests are sometimes referred to as molecular testing, and may involve:

  • looking for changes (mutations)in the DNA make-up of the tumor.
  • looking at levels of specific proteins present in the tumor.

These characteristics cannot generally be passed from one generation to the next.

Why should my tumor be tested?

When particular tumor characteristics are found through molecular testing, targeted therapies—special lung cancer treatments designed to “target” these characteristics—may be offered to you as an option for treatment.

It is important to know if you have a tumor with one of these characteristics so you and your doctor can make well-informed decisions about your treatment. Characteristics that can be targeted with treatments currently available include:

  • Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor (EGFR) mutation
  • Anaplastic Lymphoma Kinase (ALK)

Gene rearrangement EGFR and ALK mutations turn on processes in tumors that make cancer cells uncontrollably grow and divide. Targeted therapies work by turning off these processes.

Testing for EGFR and ALK mutations is particularly recommended if you have the adenocarcinoma sub-type of NSCLC, though other sub-types can also contain these characteristics. Generally, if one of these tumor characteristics is present, the other is not.

Clinical trials

Even if your tumor is negative for EGFR and ALK mutations, your tumor can still be tested for other characteristics that may allow you to access a new targeted therapy through a clinical trial. Targeted therapies for other mutations and tumor characterisics are also being tested in clinical trials, and treatments may be available to some patients. To find clinical trials for your cancer treatment, call 1-800-698-0931or visit the Clinical Trials Matching Service.

How do I get my tumor tested?

If there is enough tissue from the original biopsy of your tumor, this tissue can be tested. If not, you may need a second biopsy or minor surgery to get enough tissue to test. Results are usually sent back to your doctor between one and three weeks later.

If your doctor doesn’t recommend tumor testing for you, it is okay for you to ask why not. Testing may not be appropriate in all cases, but it is best for you to know as much as you can about your disease so you and your doctors can be full partners in your care. If you have questions about the response you receive from your doctor, it is okay to ask for a second opinion from another doctor.

Where can I go to get my tumor tested?

Many major medical centers, including members of the Lung Cancer Mutation Consortium (LCMC), offer molecular testing for lung cancer patients. If your medical center does not provide this testing, consider visiting an LCMC institution. Visit to find an institution near you.

What will it cost to get my tumor tested?

Most lung cancer tumor testing is covered by insurance. If you have concerns about whether your insurance will pay for tumor testing, talk with your nurse, social worker or insurance representative.

Molecular Tumor Testing BrochureThis information is also avaiable in our brochure, New Lung Cancer Treatment Possibilities Through Molecular Testing.

Download (PDF) >
Order free print copies online >

This information is not designed to be a substitute for medical advice provided by your treatment team.
Last updated 2/2014



Learn more about the importance of molecular tumor testing. “Don’t Guess. Test.” is a social movement aimed to expand awareness and educate patients about precision medicine and the importance of comprehensive genomic testing in lung cancer. Free to Breathe is a partner on this project, and it is our hope that through this initiative, every patient with lung cancer and their families, friends and caretakers will be motivated to take action by opening a dialogue with their doctors about genomic testing to ensure all possible treatment options are explored. 

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