Your doctors will run a number of tests to get a diagnosis, see if the cancer has spread to other parts of your body and develop a treatment plan. The tests you have will depend on the type of cancer and your specific symptoms. These tests may include:
During a physical examination, your GP will take a full medical history, which will include your family history. They will ask about any symptoms and risk factors and perform a physical examination of your body for any lumps or changes.
A sample of your blood will be tested to check the number of cells (full blood count) and to see how well your kidneys and liver are working.
During a biopsy, a small sample of cells or tissue is removed from the area being tested. A specialist doctor called a pathologist examines the sample and checks it for cancer cells under a microscope. The biopsy may be done in a specialist’s rooms, at a radiology practice or in hospital.
A bone scan may be done to see if the cancer has spread to your bones. A small amount of radioactive material is injected into a vein, usually in your arm. This material is attracted to areas of bone where there is cancer. After a few hours, the bones are viewed with a scanning machine, which sends pictures to a computer. This scan is painless, and the radioactive material is not harmful. You should drink plenty of fluids on the day of the test and the day after.
A CT (computerised tomography) scan uses x-ray beams to create detailed cross-sectional pictures of the inside of your body. Before the scan, dye is injected into a vein to make the pictures clearer. This dye may make you feel hot all over and leave a strange taste in your mouth for a few minutes. You might also feel that you need to urinate, but this sensation won’t last long. During the scan you will lie on a table that moves in and out of the CT Scanner, which is large and round like a doughnut. Your chest, abdomen and pelvis will be scanned to check if the cancer has spread to these areas. The scan takes 5-10 minutes and is painless.
An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan uses a powerful magnet and radio waves to create detailed cross-sectional pictures of the inside of your body. A dye might be injected into a vein before the scan to help make the pictures clearer. During the scan you will lie on a treatment table that slides into a metal tube that is open at both ends. The noisy, narrow machine makes some people feel anxious or claustrophobic. If you think you could become distressed, mention it beforehand to your medical team. You may be given medicine to help you relax and you will usually be offered headphones or earplugs. The MRI scan may take between 30 and 90 minutes depending on the size of the area being scanned and how many images are taken.
A positron emission tomography (PET) scan combined with a CT scan is a specialised imaging test. The two scans provide more detailed information about the cancer. A PET-CT scan is most commonly used after surgery to help find where the cancer has spread to in the body, or if the cancer has come back after treatment.
Before the scan you will be injected with a glucose solution containing a small amount of radioactive material. Cancer cells show up brighter on the scan because they take up more glucose solution than the normal cells do. You will be asked to sit quietly for 30-90 minutes as the glucose spreads through your body, then you will be scanned. The scan itself will take around 30 minutes. Let your doctor know if you are claustrophobic as the scanner is a confined space.
An ultrasound is a painless scan that uses soundwaves to create a picture of the inside of your body. The person performing the ultrasound will spread a gel on your skin, and then move a small device called a transducer over the area. This sends out soundwaves that echo when they meet something dense, like an organ or a tumour. A computer creates a picture from these echoes. The scan is painless and takes about 15-20 minutes.
For more information about cancer call Cancer Council 13 11 20.
The information available on this page should not be used as a substitute for advice from a qualified medical professional who can advise you on your own individual medical needs. It is not meant to be medical advice and is provided for general information purposes only. See our disclaimer.