Mediastinoscopy for lung cancer

You might have this test to see if cancer cells have spread into the lymph nodes around the windpipe.

Mediastinoscopy is a test that examines the mediastinum. This is the centre of your chest and area between your lungs. It contains:

  • the heart
  • the main blood vessels
  • lymph nodes (glands)
  • the food pipe (oesophagus)

The mediastinoscopy takes between 45 to 60 minutes. You have a general anaesthetic to have this test. 

Preparing for your mediastinoscopy

You will see a doctor before the mediastinoscopy who will ask some general questions about your health. You will also need some other tests before the procedure, this can include:

  • blood tests
  • a chest x-ray
  • a heart trace (ECG)
  • tests to check that your lungs are working properly
  • measuring your weight, blood pressure, temperature, heart and breathing rate

Before an anaesthetic

You need to stop eating for 6 hours beforehand and stop drinking about 2 hours before the test.

Tell your doctor if not eating might be a problem for you, for example, if you have diabetes.

Tell your doctor if you're taking medicines that changes how your blood clots. This includes:

  • aspirin
  • clopidogrel
  • arthritis medicines
  • warfarin

Your doctor tells you if you need to stop taking other medicines. 

What happens

When you arrive

When you arrive a nurse will check your weight, blood pressure, temperature, heart and breathing rate. The nurse will also ask you to:

  • change into a hospital gown
  • take off any jewellery (except for a wedding ring)
  • take off makeup, including nail varnish
  • remove contact lenses and false teeth

You can usually keep false teeth in until you get to the anaesthetic room. They may also ask you to wear special stockings on your legs. These help to prevent blood clots forming. 

You meet the doctor who will explain the procedure and asks you to sign a consent form. This is a good time to ask any questions you may have.

Because you are having a general anaesthetic you will also meet the anaesthetist. They will look after you while you are sleep.

You might have a medicine to make you feel drowsy before you go to the operating theatre. This is called a sedative. You need to stay in bed after you have had this.

Your nurse takes you to the operating theatre when it's time for your test.

During the test

The anaesthetist puts a small tube into a vein in the back of your hand (cannula). Then they give you the anaesthetic medicine through the tube.

Once the anaesthetic has worked and you're asleep, your doctor makes a small cut at the lower part of your neck. They then put a long, thin, flexible tube called a mediastinoscope through the cut and into the mediastinum. 

A camera at the end of the tube connects to a large screen so the doctor can see pictures of the inside of your chest. They can examine the area between your lungs and take tissue samples (biopsies) if needed.

Diagram showing a mediastinoscopy

If you have a biopsy your doctor sends the tissue samples for examination under a microscope, to see if there are any cancer cells.

After your mediastinoscopy

You wake up in the recovery room. You might have an oxygen mask over your nose and mouth for a while. You will have a drip giving fluids into a vein.

Soreness and pain

You might have some pain in your chest area. Your nurses will give you painkillers. Taking them for a few days helps. You might also have a sore throat. This is because you have had a tube in your throat to help you breathe during the test.

Tell your nurse or doctor if the pain goes on for more than a few days.

Eating and drinking

Once you are fully awake, you are usually able to eat and drink.

Going home

When the anaesthetic has worn off, you can go home. This might be on the evening of the test or the next day.

As you’re having a general anaesthetic you’ll need someone with you so they can take you home and stay with you overnight. Also for 24 hours after you shouldn’t drive, drink alcohol, operate heavy machinery or sign any legally binding documents.

Possible risks

A mediastinoscopy is a very safe procedure but your nurse will tell you who to contact if you have any problems after your test. Your doctors will make sure the benefits of having a mediastinoscopy outweigh any possible risks.

The possible risks include:


There is a risk of bleeding from the wound, or inside the mediastinum. Contact your doctor if your wound starts to bleed, you have chest pain or if your breathing gets worse.

You might need further surgery if your doctor thinks you have some bleeding in the mediastinum.


Contact your doctor if your wound is red and feels hot. Let them know if you have a high temperature or feel feverish. You might need antibiotics to treat an infection.

A hoarse voice

You might have a hoarse voice if the test has injured the nerves that go to the voicebox. Your voice normally goes back to normal over a few weeks. But a few people have a permanent voice change.

Air leaking from the lung

It is rare to have an air leak from the lung or a collapsed lung. Contact a doctor straight away if you have:

  • shortness of breath
  • swelling of the neck
  • chest pain
  • difficulty swallowing

It is important to treat a collapsed lung straight away. Your doctor will put a tube into the lung for a few days until the lung expands again.

Getting your results

You should get your results within 1 or 2 weeks. The doctor may be able to let you know if they have seen any abnormal areas that have been sent to the laboratory.

Waiting for results can make you anxious. Ask your doctor or nurse how long it will take to get them.

Contact the doctor who arranged the test if you haven’t heard anything after a couple of weeks.

You might have contact details for a specialist nurse and you can contact them for information if you need to. It can help to talk to a close friend or relative about how you feel.

For information and support, you can also call the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.
Last reviewed: 
09 Oct 2019
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    European Journal of Cardio-Thoracic Surgery. (2014) 1–12

  • The role of mediastinoscopy in the diagnosis of non-lung cancer diseases
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