Types of Cancer Tests

Your doctors will perform a number of tests to obtain a diagnosis, determine if the cancer has spread to other parts of your body and develop a treatment plan. The tests you have depend greatly on the type of cancers and your specific symptoms. These tests may include:

Physical examination

During a physical exam, your health care provider will ask about any symptoms and risk factors that you may have. They will then perform a physical check of your body for any lumps or changes.

Blood tests

Blood tests can check your blood count and determine how well certain organs are working.


A biopsy is a medical procedure that, for most types of cancer, is the only way to make a definitive cancer diagnosis, as it provides the most accurate analysis of tissue. During the biopsy, the doctor removes a small amount of tissue so it can be examined under a microscope by a pathologist.

Bone scan

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 your arm. This material is attracted to areas of bone where there is cancer.

CT scan

A CT (computerised tomography) scan uses x-ray beams to create a detailed picture of the inside of the body. Before the scan, dye is injected into a vein to make the pictures clearer. The CT scanner is large and round like a doughnut. You will lie on a table that moves in and out of the scanner. It takes about 30 minutes to set up the machine; however, the scan itself takes 5–10 minutes. Your body will not be radioactive after the procedure.

MRI scan

An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan uses radio waves and magnetism to create cross-sectional pictures of the body. Dye may be injected into a vein before the scan to help make the pictures clearer. You will lie on a table that slides into a metal cylinder that is open at both ends. Some people feel anxious lying in the narrow metal cylinder. You may be given a mild sedative to help you relax.

PET scan

During a PET (positron emission tomography) scan you will be injected with a small amount of radioactive glucose solution. It takes 30–90 minutes for the solution to circulate around your body. You will be asked to sit quietly during this time. Your body is then scanned for high levels of radioactive glucose. Cancer cells show up brighter on the scan because they are more active and take up more of the glucose solution than normal cells. Though it may take several hours to prepare for and have a PET scan, it is usually done on an outpatient basis. Your body will not be radioactive after this procedure.


An ultrasound is a test that uses soundwaves to build up a picture of your body. A device (transducer or probe) is placed on or in your body. This sends out soundwaves that echo when they meet something dense, like a tumour, and images are projected onto a computer screen.

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The information available on this page should not be used as a substitute for advice from a properly qualified medical professional who can advise you about your own individual medical needs. It is not intended to constitute medical advice and is provided for general information purposes only. See our disclaimer.