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What procedure or test did your doctor use to diagnose your cancer and find out what kind it was? Describe your experience.

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How is cancer diagnosed?

If you have a sign or symptom that might mean cancer, the doctor will do a physical exam and ask about your medical history. In addition, the doctor usually orders various tests and exams. These may include imaging procedures, which produce pictures of areas inside the body, endoscopy, which allows the doctor to look directly inside certain organs, and laboratory tests. In most cases, the doctor also orders a biopsy, a procedure in which a sample of tissue is removed. A pathologist examines the tissue under a microscope to check for cancer cells.


Images of areas inside the body help the doctor tell whether a tumor is present. These images can be made in several ways. In many cases, the doctor uses a special dye so that certain organs show up better on film. The dye may be swallowed or put into the body through a needle or a tube.

X-rays are the most common way doctors made pictures of the inside of the body. In a special kind of x-ray imaging, a CT or CAT scan uses a computer linked to an x-ray machine to make a series of detailed pictures.

In radionuclide scanning, such as a bone scan or PET scan, the patient swallows or is given an injection of a mildly radioactive substance. A machine (scanner) measures radioactivity levels in certain organs and prints a picture on paper or films. By looking at the amount of radioactivity in the organs, the doctor can find abnormal areas.

Ultrasonography is another procedure for viewing the inside of the body.High-frequency sound waves that cannot be heard by humans enter the body and bounce back. Their echoes produce a picture called a sonogram. These pictures are shown on a monitor like a TV screen and can be printed on paper.

In MRI, a powerful magnet linked to a computer is used to make detailed pictures of areas in the body. These pictures are viewed on a monitor and can also be printed.


Endoscopy allows the doctor to look into the body through a thin, lighted tube called an endoscope. The exam is named for the organ involved (for example, colonoscopy to look inside the colon). During the exam, the doctor may collect tissue or cells for closer examination.

Laboratory Tests

Although no single test can be used to diagnose cancer, laboratory tests such as blood and urine tests give the doctor important information. If cancer is present, the lab work may show the effects of the disease on the body. In some cases, special tests are used to measure the amount of certain substances called tumor markers in the blood, urine, and other body fluids, or tumor tissue. The levels of these substances may become abnormal when certain kinds of cancer are present.


The physical exam, imaging, endoscopy, and lab tests can show that something abnormal is present, but a biopsy is the only sure way to know whether the problem is cancer. In a biopsy, the doctor removes a sample of tissue from the abnormal area or may remove the whole tumor. A pathologist examines the tissue under a microscope. If cancer is present, the pathologist can usually tell what kind of cancer it is and may be able to judge whether the cells are likely to grow slowly or quickly.


When cancer is found, the patient's doctor needs to know the stage, or extent, of the disease to plan the best treatment. The doctor may order various tests and exams to find out whether the cancer has spread and, if so, what parts of the body are affected. In some cases, lymph nodes near the tumor are removed and checked for cancer cells. If cancer cells are found in the lymph nodes, it may mean that the cancer has spread to other organs.

Return to Early Cancer Detection And Treatment

See what others are saying

Comment from: Howie, 65-74 Male (Patient) Published: November 18

Cancer was detected in October 2011 in my right lung (lobe 1), by x-ray. Biopsy was done within a week. It was found to be cancer, about the size of a golf ball 23/4 in. diameter. Surgery was on November 21 2011, and entire 1st lobe and 17 lymph nodes were removed. All nodes were benign. I started chemotherapy first week of January 2012. It lasted 4 months. I lost 50 lbs., almost all hair on my body. Blood counts were progressively getting worse, and I needed weekly shots to correct. I felt tired with little ambition and not much of an appetite. The chemotherapy consisted of Navelbine and Cisplatin using a port. This December I will have a blood test and CT scan, normal procedure. It will be 3 years cancer free. The surgery was done robotically and at this point I have no visible scars. Hospital stay, in on Monday and out on Wednesday, home for lunch. Hope this helps.

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Comment from: scarletxo1989, 25-34 Female (Patient) Published: February 16

I had a Pap test for cancer and everything was fine. About 1 or 2 months later out of the blue I just started sleeping very deep and it felt like I couldn't get enough sleep. I told my mother something was wrong she said I was just wear myself out and it is good that I am sleeping. I was about 18 at the time. I knew something was wrong, it continued for another 3 or 4 weeks and then I went and had a test. Doctor found I had HPV (human papilloma virus) which turned to cervical dysplasia and it was growing quickly. In 2 months it had developed and grown. They watched it for 2 months because we didn't have the proper finances the hospital required and they turned me away. The next test showed I had moved 2 stages. I went through laser and got rid of it and my sleeping went back to normal. I'm here trying to find if there is a way I can find if I am okay without going to the doctor. I don't trust doctors anymore. But with me, my symptom was that I was so tired and slept for 12 hours and didn't want to get up.

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