Cancer-related Tests and Procedures

Tests and Diagnostic Procedures Related to Cancer Care

Depending on their specific condition and needs, most patients will undergo certain basic diagnostic tests before, during and after their hospitalization. These diagnostic evaluations allow the medical and nursing staffs to assess a patient's condition and plan their treatment process. Some of the more frequently utilized tests are described below.


Colonoscopy is used to investigate symptoms and to look for disorders of the colon (the major part of the large intestine). The physician views the inside of the colon with a long, flexible, fiber-optic viewing instrument called a colonoscope.

Computerized Tomography (CT scan, or "cat scan")

CT scanning is a diagnostic tool that uses X-rays to provide cross-sectional views of the body. Because of the ways X-rays are used and computer processed, CT scanning is able to show organs, arteries, soft tissues and muscles, and any problems or abnormalities that may be present. The procedure is noninvasive and painless.


Cystoscopy is the examination of the urethra and bladder cavity using a long, thin viewing tube inserted up the urethra. Diagnostic uses of cystoscopy include inspection of the bladder cavity for stones, tumors and sites of bleeding and infection, as well as the obtaining of urine samples from each kidney. In addition, by means of injected dye, X-rays can be taken to investigate the site of any obstruction to the flow of urine. Local anesthesia is used for the procedure.

Echocardiogram (Echo)

An echocardiogram is a diagnostic procedure that allows physicians to observe the structure and functioning of the heart without invasive surgery or other more complicated procedures such as a cardiac catheterization. When a patient undergoes an echo, a clear, jellylike substance is applied to the chest. A device that looks somewhat like a plastic knob will then be pressed gently 
against the chest. This device sends high-frequency sound waves through the body that a computer then uses to produce images of the heart. The procedure is painless and generally takes 40 minutes to one hour.

Electrocardiogram (EKG)

An EKG is a simple test in which 10 adhesive electrodes are placed on a patient's chest, arms and legs to measure their heart rate and cardiac functioning. The test is completely painless and generally takes only two to three minutes.


Laparoscopy is the examination of the inside of the abdomen by means of a laparoscope inserted through a small slit made near the navel. Laparoscopy is done under general anesthetic, and usually involves an overnight stay in the hospital.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

An MRI is an innovative medical procedure in which a large magnet, radio waves and a computer are used to create precise images of tissues and organs within the body. MRIs can be used to detect brain and nervous system disorders, cardiovascular disease, cancer, organ disease, and musculoskeletal problems. During an MRI, a patient is placed on a magnetic stretcher that is then rolled into a large steel tube. While inside this tube, radio frequency signals are sent through the patient's body that are then "read" by a computer to produce images. (These radio signals are not X-rays and are not known to be harmful.) The procedure is painless, but there are loud grating, whirring, and other machinelike noises inside the MRI chamber. MRI procedures have no known negative risks, but many benefits. They provide detailed images of the inside of the body that allow for early and careful detection of problems.


Mammography is an X-ray procedure for detecting breast cancer at an early stage. Mammography is simple, is safe, and causes minimal discomfort. Only low-dose X-rays are used. The breast may be X-rayed from above, the side or both; sometimes an angled view is taken.


Paracentesis is a procedure in which a body cavity is punctured with a needle from the outside. It is most often performed to remove fluid for analysis to aid diagnosis of conditions causing the collection of fluid in the abdominal cavity. The procedure is usually carried out using local anesthesia; it is quick and relatively painless.


Proctoscopy is examination of the anal canal and rectum by means of a proctoscope (a rigid viewing tube) inserted through the anus. The procedure is done without aesthetic. It is uncomfortable but usually not painful.


Sigmoidoscopy is an office procedure taking less than half an hour and needing no anesthetic. Either a rigid or a flexible viewing tube may be used to examine the rectum and sigmoid colon (the last part of the large intestine). An enema may be used beforehand. The procedure is performed to investigate symptoms such as bleeding from the rectum or lower colon, and to inspect the passage for evidence of disorders such as polyps or cancer.


Diagnostic ultrasounds are used to examine internal sections and organs in the body without X-rays or invasive surgery. A clear, jellylike substance will be applied to the skin over the part of the body being examined. A device that looks somewhat like a plastic knob will then be pressed gently against the body. This device sends high-frequency sound waves through the body that a computer then uses to produce images of the body. The procedure is painless and generally takes 40 minutes to one hour.

Upper gastrointestinal (GI) series

During an upper GI series test, the patient swallows a special drink (barium sulfate) that shows up on X-rays. Progress of the barium can be followed with a fluoroscope, and X-ray pictures can be taken, revealing structures and possible abnormalities of the esophagus, stomach and duodenum.


Venography is a technique for viewing the interior of a vein by injecting a solution visible on X-rays. Passage of the solution through the vein is recorded on a series of pictures. Venography is used to detect conditions such as deep-vein thrombosis.