Doctors use many tests to diagnose cancer and find out if it has metastasized (spread). Some tests may also determine which treatments may be the most effective. For most types of cancer, a biopsy is the only way to make a definitive diagnosis of cancer. A biopsy is the removal of a small amount of tissue for examination under a microscope. The sample removed from the biopsy is analyzed by a pathologist (a doctor who specializes in interpreting laboratory tests and evaluating cells, tissues, and organs to diagnose disease). If a biopsy is not possible, the doctor may suggest other tests that will help make a diagnosis. Imaging tests may be used to find out whether the cancer has metastasized. Your doctor may consider these factors when choosing a diagnostic test:
- Age and medical condition
- Type of cancer suspected
- Severity of symptoms
- Previous test results
Because basal cell and squamous cell cancers rarely spread, a biopsy is often the only test needed to both diagnose and find out the stage (extent) of cancer. Your doctor will review the results of the biopsy with you. No further treatment beyond the biopsy may be necessary if the entire cancer is removed. However, if the cancer is present at the edges of the tissue (called the margin) taken during the biopsy, additional treatment will usually be necessary.
Learn more about what to expect when having a biopsy.
Learn more about the first steps to take after a diagnosis of cancer.