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Diagnosis is the process of finding out the cause of a health problem. If you have a symptom of cancer or something that may suggest you have cancer was noticed during a routine checkup or a screening test, the healthcare team will find out if it is because of cancer or another health problem. Your doctor will ask you about your personal and family medical history. You may have a physical exam and your doctor may order tests.

Diagnostic tests are used to:

  • confirm the presence of cancer, identify the type of cancer and find the site where the cancer started
  • find out the grade of the cancer
  • determine the stage of the cancer
  • monitor response to treatment
  • help determine if cancer has come back (recurred)

Tests that may be done to help make a diagnosis include the following:

Lab tests measure levels of certain substances in your body such as blood, urine and other body fluids. Lab tests are important and give information about how organs in your body are functioning – but lab tests on their own cannot be relied on to make a diagnosis.

Imaging tests create pictures of the inside of your body. They help the healthcare team see if a tumour is present. Imaging tests include CT scans, ultrasounds, MRIs, PET scans and x-rays.

A biopsy is a procedure to remove a sample of tissue or a tumour from the body to see if it contains cancer cells. The sample gets examined under a microscope.

The process of diagnosis may seem long and frustrating, but it is important for the healthcare team to rule out other possible reasons for a health problem before making a diagnosis of cancer.