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Imaging Tests for Cancer

What Tests Will My Doctor Use to Make a Cancer Diagnosis? | Everyday Health

Imaging tests help doctors take a look at what’s occurring inside your body, and can also show the doctor how far your cancer has spread, and whether the treatment is working.


Imaging tests work by sending types of energy — like sound waves, x-rays, magnetic fields, or radioactive particles — through your body. The tissues of your body then change these energy patterns to create a picture or image. These pictures show how your insides look and work so that health care providers can see changes that may be caused by diseases like cancer.


Doctors use imaging tests for cancer in various ways, including:

  • Identifying cancer in its earliest stages when it’s small and hasn’t spread, and you’re not experiencing symptoms.
  • Looking for a lump or tumor if you are experiencing symptoms. They can also see if it’s cancer or another disease-causing your symptoms.
  • Predicting if your tumor is potentially cancerous and whether the doctor needs to remove and analyze a small tissue sample to help determine this. Usually, doctors can use the biopsy process to see if any change is cancer.
  • Seeing where your tumor sits, even if it’s deep inside your body.
  • Finding out what stage your cancer is in, or if it has spread to other parts of your body.
  • Planning treatment, such as showing where the doctor needs to target cancer radiology therapy beams.
  • Detecting if your tumor has grown, shrunk, or stayed the same following treatment. This lets the doctor know how well your treatment is working, and whether any changes in therapy are necessary.
  • Identifying if your cancer returned after treatment.

Imaging tests are only a small part of the cancer diagnosis and treatment process. A full cancer work-up will also involve a discussion of your medical history (asking questions about your symptoms and risk factors), a physical exam, and blood work or other lab tests.

Before beginning treatment, many health care professionals schedule x-rays or other imaging tests. These images are then utilized to monitor progress throughout treatment. These are known as baseline studies because they illustrate how things were at the beginning. They may be compared to later pictures to determine how therapy progresses over time.


Imaging tests can be quite beneficial in many cases, but they have limitations. For example, most of the time, diagnostic tests cannot determine if a change is caused by cancer.

Imaging tests can find large groups of cancer cells, but no imaging test can show a single cancer cell or even a few. It takes millions of cells to make a tumor big enough to show up on an imaging test. This is why treatment may continue even when cancer cells can no longer be seen on an imaging test. The goal is to get any surviving cancer cells. Even one can grow and, over time, become a tumor that will again be big enough to cause problems and/or show up on an imaging test.

On the other side, imaging scans may show something that appears to be cancer, but further testing (such as a biopsy) reveals that it is not cancer.


An imaging test may be performed by a doctor, a certified technologist, or another health professional. The test might be performed at a hospital, a specialized clinic or imaging center, or a doctor’s office. Imaging tests are frequently performed in the radiology or nuclear medicine departments of major medical centers.

A radiologist is a doctor who specializes in imaging methods. He or she is generally the one who reads (interprets) the images created throughout the test. The radiologist writes a report based on the findings and sends it to your doctor. A copy of the report will be added to your patient records. Your other physicians (oncologists, surgeons, and so on) may also see the pictures.


Different Imaging Tests Explained | UVA Radiology

Many different types of scans are utilized to obtain pictures of what is going on within the body. Some of the most common types of imaging tests, how they are performed, and when they may be required may be found in the following sections:-

The tests your doctor prescribes may be influenced by a variety of factors, including:-

(a) the location and kind of tumor. Some imaging tests are more effective in some areas of the body than others. 

(b) Whether or not a biopsy (tissue sample) is required. 

(c) Your age, gender, and overall health. 

(d) The balance of any risks or side effects and the predicted benefits. 

(e) Your preference 

(f) Cost

Ask your health care providers if you have any questions regarding a test they want you to have. You may want them to explain why you need the test, what it could find, the benefits and drawbacks of having the test, and whether there are any alternatives to the test. Make sure to ask about cost as well. Will your insurance cover the test? Do you need to receive approval from your insurance company before taking the test? (This is known as pre-certification.)


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