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Diagnostic Procedures for Cancer: Overview

What are diagnostic procedures for cancer?

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

  • A detailed medical history—both family and personal

  • Thorough physical exam

  • Pelvic exam of the uterus, vagina, ovaries, bladder, and rectum

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

  • Rectal exam of the prostate (men only)

Other diagnostic procedures that may be requested include:

  • Imaging tests, such as:

    • X-ray. Images of bones, certain organs and tissues produced by a controlled beam of radiation. 

    • Computed tomography (CT or CAT scan). This is an imaging test that uses X-rays and a computer to make detailed images of the body. A CT scan shows details of the bones, muscles, fat, and organs. 

    • 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 and PET scans.

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

    • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). A noninvasive imaging procedure using strong magnetic fields and radio waves that provides detailed views of organs and internal structures without the use of X-rays. MRI scans can give different information than standard X-rays, ultrasound, and CT scans. 

  • 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 healthcare provider to see inside the hollow organs. These include 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 exam in a lab by a pathologist. A biopsy can be done with 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 always needed to confirm 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.

Medical Reviewers:

  • LoCicero, Richard, MD
  • Sather, Rita, RN