Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Health Issues

As with symptoms, the tests used to detect cancer vary according to the suspected type of tumor. However, a diagnostic workup usually consists of a physical examination followed by several procedures from one or more of the categories below:

Laboratory/specimen tests

To analyze blood and other bodily fluids for the presence of malignant cells or tumor markers. These are substances produced by the cancer itself or the body in response to the tumor. Examples: complete blood count (CBC); lumbar puncture (spinal tap).

Imaging studies

To view internal organs for signs of a tumor. Examples: X rays; computed tomography (CT scan); magnetic resonance imaging (MRI scan); radionuclide scans; ultrasound.

Endoscopic exams

To examine internal organs directly through a flexible lighted endoscope, which the doctor inserts through an opening such as the nose, mouth, vagina, urethra or anus.

Examples: gastroscopy of the stomach; colonoscopy of a lower bowel.


The only way to conclusively diagnose cancer is for the physician to biopsy a specimen of tissue from the questionable area. This is obtained using either a needle or a surgical knife. A medical specialist called a pathologist then studies the sample under the microscope, looking for the tell-tale signs of cancer. In addition to identifying whether a mass is benign or malignant, the biopsy reveals other essential information that may influence the proposed treatment plan.

An incisional biopsy cuts out a small portion of tumor. If the pathology report comes back positive for cancer, a second surgery may be scheduled. In an excisional biopsy, the surgeon removes the entire growth and a rim of normal tissue on all sides. This is called a margin. Depending on the type and stage of cancer, no further therapy may be necessary. However, most often the patient will require additional treatment with anticancer medicine (chemotherapy) and/or radiation therapy.


Last Updated
Caring for Your Teenager (Copyright © 2003 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.