Diagnostic Procedures for Cancer: Overview

What are diagnostic procedures for cancer?

When symptoms suggest cancer, your physician may request/perform any of the following procedures to help positively diagnose it:

  • A detailed medical history - family and personal
  • Thorough physical examination
  • Pelvic examination of the uterus, vagina, ovaries, bladder, and rectum
  • Pap test may be requested at the time of pelvic examination (women only)
  • Rectal examination of the protate 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 non-invasive procedure that takes cross-sectional images of the brain or other internal organs; to detect any abnormalities that may not show up on an ordinary x-ray. The CT scan may 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 and gallium scans.
    • Ultrasound - an imaging technique that uses 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 non-invasive procedure that produces a two-dimensional view of an internal organ or structure, especially the brain and spinal cord. The MRI may show abnormal nodules in bones or lymph nodes - a sign that cancer may be spreading.
  • Endoscopy - use of a very flexible tube with a lens or camera (and a light on the end), which is connected to a computer screen, allowing the physician to see inside the hollow organs, such as the bladder or uterus. Biopsy samples (tiny pieces of tissue) can be taken through the tube.
  • Laboratory tests - to examine blood, urine, other fluids, or tumor tissue
  • Biopsy - to remove a sample of the suspicious tissue for examination in a laboratory by a pathologist

Once the cancer is diagnosed, an evaluation will be made to determine the extent (stage) of the cancer.

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