Knowing how doctors diagnose cancer is important. By understanding what tests and procedures used to diagnose most types of cancer, you can be better informed to ask questions that are more relevant. If you have access to the internet, you can look up any unfamiliar terms you may come across during the diagnostic process. Doing this will allow you to ask your doctor more informed questions, and allow you to come as prepared as possible for each doctor's appointment.
If you suspect that you may have cancer for the first time, you may want to see your primary care physician first. A family doctor or general physician should know of hospitals or institutions that are especially skilled in cancer diagnosis or treatment, if necessary. Additionally, a primary care physician should know of several doctors that specialize in cancer diagnosis. People already diagnosed with cancer and who are experiencing recurrence may want to visit directly with a specialist.
The diagnosis of cancer first involves a thorough medical and family history. Your doctor inquire into family history of cancer (if any); as well as various aspects of your life (e.g. possible exposure to chemicals while at work; cigarette smoking; etc.). Your doctor may also attempt to determine if another, non-cancerous medical disorder could be causing symptoms by asking you a variety of questions. Other diagnostic exams involve a physical exam; laboratory tests; possible biopsies; and imaging procedures.
Biopsy - perhaps the best way to confirm or exclude a cancer diagnosis is through a biopsy. During a biopsy, a sample of the suspected cancerous mass is removed from the body, and sent to a pathologist who examines the sample for cancerous cells. Tissue removal may be performed through a needle, an endoscope (a long thin tube used to look into the body), a device for cutting away material, or through surgery. It's always a good idea to ask for a copy of your pathology report so that you have the information that your doctor is using to make the diagnosis.
Imaging procedures - many procedures are now used by doctors to create images of body tissues so a diagnosis can be made. These include:
CT scan - A computerized topography (CT) scan uses x-rays that are then arranged by a computer to provide more detailed images than through a normal X-Ray
MRI - Magnetic resonance imaging uses a powerful magnet connected to a computer. This magnet produces detailed images of the body.
PET scan - A positron emission tomography scan produces a three-dimensional image of body functions by using a radioactive isotope, is injected into the body. A picture is created as the isotope decays, and a scanner is used.
Radionuclide scan - during a radionuclide scan, doctors inject a small amount of a radioactive substance into the body. As this substances moves through the blood stream, it ultimately reaches the area of the body that the doctor suspects may have a cancerous mass. A device is then used that provides an image by using the radioactive substance as a dye.
Ultrasound - ultrasound uses a device that bounces sound waves off of organs (thus, an echo) and a computer interprets these sound waves and creates a picture with them.
X-Ray - this common imaging techniques allows doctors to see both bones and organs inside the body.
Laboratory tests - a wide variety of laboratory tests may be performed in order to diagnose cancer. Urine or blood test(s) look for unusual signs of cancer or of a possible other disorder. Doctors look for 'tumour markers,' high amounts of certain chemicals, etc. in a test sample that indicate a higher likelihood of having cancer. Laboratory tests alone, however, are no guarantee that you have or do not have cancer. They are merely one part to solving the puzzle.
Physical exam - a thorough physical exam may include visual exam looking for skin discolorations or other abnormalities, palpitation (feeling via touch) areas of the body for lumps (e.g. breast cancer), and will involve taking the vital signs.
During the diagnostic process, continue to ask your doctor informed questions. After a little bit of research, you can be best prepared to understand the following steps. Never be afraid to seek a second, even third opinion, for whatever reason. You may find that you have better communication with one doctor than another, which may be a trait that you personally value.
Once you get a diagnosis from your doctor, you can begin treatment. To learn more about treatment options including drugs used for cancer, read here for additional information.