Diagnostic Procedures for Cancer: Overview

What are diagnostic procedures for cancer?

When symptoms suggest cancer, your healthcare provider may request or do any of these procedures to help diagnose it:

  • A full health 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 procedures that may be done are:

  • Imaging tests, such as:

    • X-ray. Images of bones, certain organs, and tissues are made with a controlled beam of radiation. 

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

    • Radionuclide or nuclear medicine scan. A small amount of radioactive substance is injected into the vein. A machine then measures levels of radioactivity in certain tissues or organs. It detects any abnormal areas or tumors. Some examples are bone scans and PET scans.

    • Ultrasound. This test uses high-frequency sound waves to make an image on a monitor of the stomach organs, such as the uterus, liver, and kidneys.

    • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This test uses strong magnetic fields and radio waves to give 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. A healthcare provider uses a flexible tube with a lens or tiny camera (and a light on the end), which is connected to a computer screen, 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 more testing.

  • Lab tests. These are done to examine blood, urine, other fluids, or tumor tissue from a biopsy.

  • Biopsy. This test removes a sample of the suspicious tissue. A pathologist looks at the tissue in a lab. A biopsy can be done with several different procedures depending on the location of the tumor and its 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 find out the extent (stage) of the cancer. This is often done with some of the imaging tests described above.