If your cancer screening test has come back showing that you need further evaluation, you’re probably worried. What kind of tests do you need? What can they tell you and your doctor about your unsettling results? Some of your concerns might be minimized if you know what kinds of screenings are available and what happens during each type. Here are a few of the common types of tests that are used to discover more about your screening results.
If your screening shows you may have breast, skin, ovarian, or other types of tumors, you may need to have a biopsy–a procedure in which a cellular sample is extracted from the body for closer analysis. This can be done one of several ways, depending on what tissue needs to be inspected. The doctor might employ a needle to extract a small amount of tissue from a suspicious lump or may use a minuscule tube with a fiber optic light attached to sample the lining of the throat or intestines. The extracted tissue is then sent to a pathology lab for microscopic inspection to determine if there is any cause for further concern.
An X-ray test checks for tumors in any part of the body by sending a controlled beam of radiation through the relevant area and photographing the way the tissues absorb or reflect the radiation. This creates a contrast photograph, meaning a photograph in light and dark colors only, of the inside of a person’s body that can be studied to find evidence of tissue growths that shouldn’t be there. Because the test involves radiographic imaging, you may be asked to drink a substance called a radioactive tracer that will integrate harmlessly into your body and show up very clearly on an X-ray; this helps doctors see unusual concentrations of tissue better when analyzing your scans. This type of test may be helpful if you are concerned about lung or bone cancers for example.
More recent advances in radiographic imaging have made it possible to scan for brain cancer more effectively than X-rays. A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan uses magnetic waves to create detailed images of the inside of the brain and areas of the spine, where other radiographic tests wouldn’t necessarily be able to see. Positron-assisted tomography or computer-assisted tomography tests (PET and CAT scans) take multiple x-ray images from different angles, putting them together in a computer to show “slices” of the brain or other organs that can be more accurately analysed than a photograph of the whole thing. These tests may also require a radioactive tracer to be ingested, and often take longer than a simple X-ray. These kinds of tests may be used on your entire body to see if tumors are in other areas.
An ultrasound is used to identify cancers in soft tissue that do not appear well on an X-ray, such as the intestinal tract or reproductive organs, such as ovaries or breasts. An ultrasound probe is placed against the skin near the organ to be examined and projects high-frequency sound waves through the body. These reflect off the body’s tissues and back to the probe, creating an image of the inside of the body that can be analyzed for possible cancerous growths.
The idea that you may have cancer is frightening enough. Knowing how further testing is conducted and what you will learn from it can ease some of the worry. With all types of cancer, one of the most important things about treating it is to start early. By knowing what tests you might need, you can approach your doctor with more informed questions about what’s happening to you and what your best course of action is.