Understanding Tests

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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