A cancer diagnosis typically starts with some suspicion. You might notice signs or symptoms of cancer and bring your concerns to your primary care physician. Or, a cancer screening may find something suspicious that requires further inspection.
That means, you should know the signs and symptoms of cancer, and you should get any cancer screenings you need. Your health care provider can help you figure out what screenings you need to get and how often based on things like your age, family history and other risk factors.
So, let’s say you’ve noticed signs of cancer, a screening has identified abnormal cells, or tumor markers have appeared in your blood work – what’s next? How do you find out whether you have cancer?
Beginning with a biopsy
Diagnosis requires a biopsy of any abnormal cells. The tumor, or a piece of it, is removed from your body and taken to a lab, where a pathologist closely inspects the cells to determine if it is cancer and the type.
Because there are so many different types of cancers that can be located throughout the body, there are a lot of different types of biopsy methods. But what they all have in common is that a tissue sample will be removed and examined closely by an expert who will use lab tests to determine if it is malignant or benign.
Imaging tests for staging
After the type of cancer is determined, doctors use imaging technology to figure out how far cancer has spread. This part of the process is known as staging, where your oncologist can tell you if your cancer is stage 1, stage 2, stage 3 or stage 4.
Stages 1 and 2 are considered the early stages, when the cancer has not spread to other parts of the body. These stages are typically easier to treat and patients have a higher survival rate than those with late-stage cancers.
“Staging gives us that full diagnosis, so we know what the cancer is, how far it has spread and what the treatment options are,” said Mary Stapel, MD, a physician at OSF HealthCare.
There are several types of imaging technology used for staging. One of the most common is a PT scan, also called a PET scan, which looks for areas of increased metabolic activity, a sign that cancer has spread, or metastasized.
Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, is often used to stage breast cancer, and a CT scan (computed tomography) is used to stage lung cancer. The type of imaging machine depends on which area of the body needs to be evaluated, Dr. Stapel said.
What are tumor markers?
Many tumor markers are proteins that are created by cancerous cells at a higher rate than they are made by normal cells. So, if a test or screening reveals that you have elevated levels of certain proteins, your health care provider will likely want to look into it further.
Most tumor marker proteins can also be created by normal cells, and some are created by benign, non-dangerous tumors, so the presence of tumor markers alone is typically not enough to diagnose cancer. In fact, tumor markers are more useful for monitoring existing cancers throughout treatment and beyond, according to Dr. Stapel.
“Tumor markers can be used to help detect some cancers, but they’re not available for all cancers,” Dr. Stapel said. “They’re used more once we know cancer is present. Then we can track the levels of tumor markers. They can be used after treatment, too, to monitor whether or not a cancer is in remission.”
Know your risk for cancer
Speak with your primary care provider to learn more about your risk for cancer, what you can do to lower your risk, and what you should be doing to monitor your health.
A simple step you can take on your own to help educate yourself is to take online cancer risk assessments. These assessments can help educate you on your risk and help inform your conversations with your health care provider.
Last Updated: February 10, 2023