Unfortunately, many types of cancer don't have obvious symptoms or cause pain until they are advanced. Because early-stage cancer symptoms tend to be subtle, they are often mistaken for signs of other health issues.
Seven warning signs of cancer
Consult your physician if you have any of these signs and symptoms.
- Changes in bowel or bladder habits
- A sore that does not heal
- Unusual bleeding or discharge
- Thickening or a lump in the breast or any other part of the body
- Indigestion or difficulty swallowing
- An obvious change in a wart or mole
- A nagging cough or hoarseness
There are many methods doctors use to diagnose cancer. As researchers learn more about the mechanisms of cancer, new tools for diagnosis are constantly being developed and existing methods are being refined.
If your doctor suspects cancer, he or she may order tests to confirm the diagnosis. These tests can either be conducted by your primary care doctor or by an oncologist (a doctor who specializes in treating cancer) at a cancer center like HealthEast Cancer Care.
Accurate identification of cancer allows oncologists to choose the most effective treatments.
During a biopsy, a small tissue sample is surgically removed. It is then examined under a microscope to look for cancer cells. Depending on where the tumor is located, some biopsies can be done in an outpatient procedure with only local anesthesia.
If the tumor is filled with fluid, a type of biopsy called a fine needle aspiration is used. A long, thin needle is inserted directly into the area to draw out fluid samples for examination.
During an endoscopy, a flexible plastic tube with a tiny camera on the end is inserted into body cavities and organs, allowing the physician to view the suspicious area. There are many types of scopes, each designed to view particular areas of the body.
Diagnostic imaging produces an internal picture of the body and its structures.
Types of imaging include:
- X-rays - the most common way doctors make pictures of the inside of the body. Specialists can spot abnormal areas that may indicate cancer.
- CAT or CT scan (computerized axial tomography) - uses radiographic beams to create detailed pictures taken with a specialized x-ray machine. It is more precise than a standard x-ray.
- MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) - uses a powerful magnetic field to create detailed computer images of the body’s soft tissue, large blood vessels and major organs. During an MRI, patients must lie completely still for best results.
- Ultrasound - uses high-frequency sound waves to determine if a suspicious lump is solid or fluid. These sound waves are transmitted into the body and converted into a computerized image.
- PET scans (positron emission tomography) - can be useful in defining the extent of disease. It can also be used to assess response to treatment. PET is particularly useful in evaluating lymph nodes.
Some tumors release substances called tumor markers that can be detected in the blood. Blood tests by themselves can be inconclusive, and other methods should be used to confirm the diagnosis.