Appendix Cancer: Diagnosis

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 12/2023

ON THIS PAGE: You will find a list of common tests, procedures, and scans that doctors use to find the cause of a medical problem. Use the menu to see other pages.

Doctors use many tests to find, or diagnose, cancer. They also do tests to learn if cancer has spread to another part of the body from where it started. If the cancer has spread, it is called metastasis. Doctors may also do tests to learn which treatments could work best.

For most types of cancer, a biopsy is the only sure way for the doctor to know if an area of the body has cancer. In a biopsy, the doctor takes a small sample of tissue for testing in a laboratory. If a biopsy is not possible, the doctor may suggest other tests that will help make a diagnosis.

How appendix cancer is diagnosed

There are different tests used for diagnosing appendix cancer. Not all tests described here will be used for every person. Your doctor may consider these factors when choosing a diagnostic test:

  • The type of cancer suspected

  • Your signs and symptoms

  • Your age and general condition

  • The results of earlier medical tests

In addition to a physical exam, the following tests may be used to diagnose appendix cancer:

  • Biopsy. A biopsy is the only way to make a definite diagnosis, even if other tests can suggest that cancer is present. During a biopsy, a small amount of tissue is removed for examination under a microscope. A pathologist analyzes the sample(s). A pathologist is a doctor who specializes in interpreting laboratory tests and evaluating cells, tissues, and organs to diagnose disease.

    However, appendix cancer is often found unexpectedly during or after abdominal surgery for another reason. If cancer is suspected at the time of surgery, the doctor will remove a portion of the colon and surrounding tissue (called a margin) for examination. Often, a patient will have an appendectomy, which is the surgical removal of the appendix. This is usually done for what is first thought to be appendicitis, and the cancer is diagnosed after the pathologist has looked at the tissue under the microscope. In that case, another surgery may be recommended to remove another margin of tissue around the area where the tumor began, depending on the type of appendix cancer (such as a neuroendocrine or adenocarcinoma tumor) and size of tumor (if it is a neuroendocrine tumor). Appendix cancer may also be discovered by accident when a CT scan is done for another reason.

  • Computed tomography (CT or CAT) scan. A CT scan takes pictures of the inside of the body using x-rays taken from different angles. A computer combines these pictures into a detailed, 3-dimensional (3D) image that shows any abnormalities or tumors. A CT scan can be used to measure the tumor’s size. Sometimes, a special dye called a contrast medium is given before the scan to provide better detail on the image. This dye can be injected into a patient’s vein or given as a pill or liquid to swallow.

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An MRI produces detailed images of the inside of the body using magnetic fields, not x-rays. MRI can be used to measure the tumor’s size. A special dye called a contrast medium is given before the scan to create a clearer picture. This dye can be injected into a patient’s vein or given as a pill to swallow.

  • Ultrasound. An ultrasound creates a picture of the internal organs using sound waves.

  • Biomarker testing of the tumor. Your doctor may recommend running laboratory tests on a tumor to identify specific genes, proteins, and other factors unique to the tumor. This may also be called molecular testing of the tumor. Biomarker testing can also be done through a blood test called a liquid biopsy. Results of these tests can help determine your treatment options.

  • Radionuclide scanning (68Ga-DOTATATE PET scan or OctreoScan). These tests are used for neuroendocrine tumors and not other types of appendix cancers. A small amount of a radioactive, hormone-like substance that is attracted to a neuroendocrine tumor is injected into a vein. The amount of radiation in the substance is too low to be harmful. A special camera is then used to show where the radioactive substance accumulates. This procedure is useful in detecting spread of a neuroendocrine tumor.

After diagnostic tests are done, your doctor will review the results with you. If the diagnosis is appendix cancer, these results also help the doctor describe the cancer and determine where the cancer is in the body. This is called staging.

The next section in this guide is Stages and Grades. It explains the system doctors use to describe the extent of the disease. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.