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Diagnostic Procedures for Cancer: Overview

What are diagnostic procedures for cancer?

When symptoms suggest cancer, your doctor may request or perform any of the following procedures to help diagnose it:

  • A detailed medical history--family and personal

  • Thorough physical exam

  • Pelvic exam of the uterus, vagina, ovaries, bladder, and rectum (women only)

  • Pap test at the time of pelvic exam (women only)

  • Rectal exam of the prostate and rectum (men only)

Other diagnostic procedures that may be requested include:

  • Imaging tests, such as:

    • X-ray

    • Computed tomography (CT or CAT scan). A noninvasive diagnostic imaging procedure that uses a combination of X-ray and computer technology to produce detailed  images (often called slices) of the body. The CT scan may  show tumors or indicate enlarged lymph nodes--a possible sign of a spreading cancer or of an infection. 

    • Radionuclide or nuclear medicine scan. An imaging scan in which a small amount of radioactive substance is injected into the vein. A machine measures levels of radioactivity in certain tissues or organs, thereby detecting any abnormal areas or tumors. Some examples are bone scans, PET scans, thyroid scans, and gallium scans.

    • Ultrasound. An imaging technique that uses high-frequency sound waves to produce an image on a monitor of the abdominal organs, such as the uterus, liver, and kidneys.

    • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). A noninvasive procedure that produces detailed views of an internal organ or structure, especially the brain and spinal cord, without the use of X-rays. The MRI may show abnormal nodules in bones or lymph nodes--a sign that cancer may be spreading.

  • Endoscopy. Use of a flexible tube with a lens or tiny camera (and a light on the end), which is connected to a computer screen, allowing the doctor to see inside the hollow organs, such as the esophagus, stomach, intestines, bladder, or uterus. Biopsy samples (tiny pieces of tissue) can be taken through the tube for further evaluation.

  • Lab tests. These are done to examine blood, urine, other fluids, or tumor tissue from a biopsy.

  • Biopsy. This is done to remove a sample of the suspicious tissue for examination in a lab by a pathologist. Biopsy can be done wiht several different  procedures depending on the location of the tumor and size. Endoscopy, needle biopsy with image guidance, and surgical biopsy are a few examples.

For most types of cancer, exams and imaging tests might suggest a person has cancer, but a biopsy is usually needed to be sure of the diagnosis.

Once the cancer is diagnosed, an evaluation will be made to determine the extent (stage) of the cancer. This is often done with some of the imaging tests described above.