Cancer Diagnostic Tests & Procedures | MedStar Health

To accurately diagnose cancer, your family doctor, general internist, or oncologist will perform a general physical exam, including a history of your symptoms, as well as other tests and procedures that may be necessary, depending on the type of cancer and its location in the body. These include:

  • Biopsy: A biopsy, or microexamination of tissue by a pathologist, determines whether or not cancer cells are present. A small amount of tissue is removed, usually by needle.

  • Bone density scan: A procedure to measure how much calcium and other minerals are in a section of your bone, often ordered if you have an increased risk for osteoporosis. The most common method is called a DEXA scan, which uses low-dose X-rays.

  • CT or CAT (computed tomography) scan: A rotating X-ray beam creates a series of pictures that are combined by a computer to produce a cross-section image. The CT scan can be used to detect enlarged lymph nodes or abnormal nodules in organs.

  • Fine needle aspiration (FNA): FNA uses a CT scan (computed tomography image) to guide a long, thin, hollow needle into the lymph nodes. A small sample of tissue is removed through the needle and sent for examination.

  • Lymph node biopsy: When there is a diagnosis of cancer, it is important to know if the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes (glands).

  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): Magnetic fields are used to create detailed images of specific areas of the body.

  • Nuclear medicine scan: A radioactive substance, called a tracer, is delivered into your body before the test. The tracer then collects in the target organ, and a special camera detects the energy coming from the tracers. The camera turns the data into an image. Our team of cancer experts uses nuclear scans to detect abnormalities in your body, including bone infections and tumors.

  • PET scan (positron emission tomography): This non-invasive procedure produces powerful images of the metabolic activity in the body. PET can show abnormalities that other imaging techniques may not detect.

  • Radioiodine scan: Your physician may use this type of scanning to help evaluate, manage, and monitor papillary and follicular thyroid cancer. This scan has been in use for many decades and is a simple procedure that offers the least amount of radiation exposure.

  • Radionuclide bone scan: An injection of a small amount of radioactive material that is attracted to diseased bone cells makes these areas visible on the bone scan image.

  • Ultrasound: An ultrasound, or sonogram, uses high-frequency sound waves to create images of the inside of the body. The sound waves reflect off tissues in the body, and a computer creates an image from the reflected waves. Ultrasounds are used to view the heart, blood vessels, and organs, and to examine a fetus during pregnancy.

  • Vascular ultrasound: Also called a duplex ultrasound, this is an imaging test used to see how blood moves through your arteries and veins. It measures the speed of the flow of blood and can reveal if there are any blockages. Our health care team uses vascular ultrasound to diagnose a number of conditions, including varicose veins, abdominal aneurysm and arterial occlusion.

  • X-Ray: An X-ray uses electromagnetic radiation to pass particles through your body and create an image captured by a computer. Structures inside your body will be black, gray, or white depending on their make-up.

Our providers

Doctors Ihemelandu and Swain talk while walking through the hallway at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

Expert oncology care

Getting the care you need starts with seeing one of our oncologists.