Understanding Cancer Tests
Doctors use tests like mammography, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and
computed tomography (CT) scans to help them screen for, diagnose, treat,
and monitor cancer. If you have been diagnosed with cancer, you may have
had one or more of these tests. You may have wondered why you had specific
tests and not others or what exactly the doctor was looking for.
Why do I need to be tested?
There are several reasons why a doctor may order a test for you. Tests
may be done to:
Screen for cancer. Screening tests are done in people without any symptoms as a way to find
a cancer early. An example of this is the Pap smear to screen for cervical
cancer or a mammogram for breast cancer.
Help diagnose and stage the cancer. If your doctor suspects that you may have cancer, he or she may recommend
a test to help diagnose and stage the cancer (find out how far it has
spread). An example of this might be a chest x-ray and CT for someone
with symptoms suggesting lung cancer.
Guide treatment for the cancer. These tests may be used during treatment to help guide or direct the surgery
or radiation that is being performed. An example of this might be MRI-guided
brain surgery. In this surgery, an MRI is used to create virtual images
that help the surgeon remove the tumor with less damage to the surrounding tissues.
Monitor the cancer and its treatment. If you have been diagnosed with cancer or if you have had treatment for
cancer, your doctor will use tests to monitor the cancer, see if it has
come back, or to check for side effects of the treatment. An example of
this might be checking the prostatic-specific antigen (PSA) levels in
someone who has been treated for prostate cancer.
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