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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 positively diagnose it:

  • A�detailed medical history--family and personal

  • Thorough physical examination

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

  • Pap test may be requested at the time of pelvic examination (women only)

  • Rectal examination 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 product horizontal, or axial, images (often called slices) of the body.�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, 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 very flexible tube with a lens or 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.

  • Laboratory tests. These are done to examine blood, urine, other fluids, or tumor tissue.

  • Biopsy. This is done 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.