How Cancer is Diagnosed

Your doctor may use one or more approaches to diagnose cancer:

Physical exam. Your doctor may feel areas of your body for lumps that may indicate a tumor. During a physical exam, he or she may look for abnormalities, such as changes in skin color or enlargement of an organ, that may indicate the presence of cancer.

Laboratory tests. Laboratory tests, such as urine and blood tests, may help your doctor identify abnormalities that can be caused by cancer. For instance, in people with leukemia, a common blood test called complete blood count may reveal an unusual number or type of white blood cells.

Imaging tests. Imaging tests allow your doctor to examine your bones and internal organs in a noninvasive way. Imaging tests used in diagnosing cancer may include a computerized tomography (CT) scan, bone scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET) scan, ultrasound and X-ray, among others.

Biopsy. During a biopsy, your doctor collects a sample of cells for testing in the laboratory. There are several ways of collecting a sample. Which biopsy procedure is right for you depends on your type of cancer and its location. In most cases, a biopsy is the only way to definitively diagnose cancer.

In the laboratory, doctors look at cell samples under the microscope. Normal cells look uniform, with similar sizes and orderly organization. Cancer cells look less orderly, with varying sizes and without apparent organization.