Diagnosing Cancer

How is cancer diagnosed?

The process usually begins with a visit to a health care provider with a specific complaint or symptom, or because something was detected during a routine check-up or screening. Laboratory tests, scans, procedures or an appointment with a specialist may be ordered by your doctor to help determine the exact diagnosis.

To confirm a cancer diagnosis, a biopsy of a tissue sample is usually performed, or by having an MRI or a CT scan. The biopsy tissue is sent to the lab for analysis and a pathology report is sent to your doctor or specialist describing what was found. The pathology of the tissue will help your health care team understand the type of cancer you may have and prepare a treatment plan. For more information on the types of tests used to diagnose cancer, visit the Canadian Cancer Society website.

What is cancer?

Cancer is not a single disease. In fact, cancer is a family of more than 100 different diseases. These different kinds of cancer are usually named according to the part of the body where they first developed. Cancer develops when certain cells in your body begin to grow out of control. These abnormal cells sometimes form a mass, or lump called a tumour. Tumours can be cancerous (malignant) or non-cancerous (benign).

Benign (be-NINE) tumours do not spread to other parts of the body and are not cancer.

Malignant (ma-LIG-nant) tumours are cancer and can spread to other parts of the body. Cancer spreads when cells break away from the tumour and travel to other parts of your body. In some types of cancer, these cells start to grow in many places at the same time. When cancer cells spread, it is called metastasis.

Metastasis (me-TA-sta-sis) happens through the blood or lymphatic systems. Wherever cancer cells grow and spread, they can prevent healthy cells and organs from doing their job. 

What are the types of cancer?

Types of cancers are named by the place in the body where they started. For example, cancer cells found in the breast is called breast cancer. However, if a cancer has spread, the cancer cells found in other parts of the body can be from the original cancer. For example, lung cancer that has spread to the brain is called a lung cancer with brain metastases.

Carcinomas (car-sin-NO-ma) are the most common types of cancer. They start in an organ such as a lung, breast, prostate, bowel, or ovary.

Sarcomas (sar-KO-ma) are cancers that start in the muscles, bones and tissues that connect different parts of the body. 

Leukemias (lu-KEY-mee-ya), or blood cancers, are cancers of the white blood cells.

Lymphomas (lim-FO-ma) are cancers of the lymphatic system, a series of vessels that carry lymph to different parts of the body. Lymph is a watery fluid that contains cells that fight infection and disease.

 What does cancer stage mean?

Understanding the stage of a cancer will help determine how to treat the cancer and the likelihood of it spreading to other parts of the body. To confirm the stage of a cancer, specialists such as Oncologists, Radiologists, Pathologists and Surgeons, use a variety of tests to examine the size, cells and any changes in the cancer before or after treatment. Stages range from zero, one, two, three and four (with four being the most severe stage).

Stages of Cancer: Stage 0, Stage 1, Stage 2, Stage 3, Stage 4

For more information, visit the Canadian Cancer Society website.

Who do I talk to about a cancer diagnosis?

Your family doctor or nurse practitioner can help explain test results and next steps in your care at any time during a diagnosis and treatment. If you are seeing a specialist (for example, a Surgeon, Urologist or Respirologist) prepare your questions. The Cancer Patient Navigator is also available to speak with you and your family and assist in answering questions, providing information on what to expect, and what services and supports are available to you. You don’t have to wait until you see a cancer doctor (Oncologist) to ask for help or information, get the support you need early.

How can I contact the Cancer Patient Navigator?

Cancer Patient Navigator
Cancer Treatment Centre
60 Riverside Drive
Charlottetown, PE   C1A 7T5

Telephone:   (902) 894-2552
Toll Free:  1-877-511-5177
Email:  cancerpatientnavigator@ihis.org


Published date: 
March 21, 2016
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