Types of Cancer Tests

Several types of tests exist to screen and diagnose cancer in patients who may not exhibit symptoms. Types of tests include imaging tests, laboratory tests, biopsies, and endoscopies. The types of tests administered will depend on the type of cancer the patient is screened for, as well as the types of symptoms the patient may exhibit. There is significant data showing that certain types of tests can reduce the number of deaths from the associated type of cancer. However, not all types of tests show significant clinical data supporting the benefits.

Imaging Tests for Cancer

Diagnostic imaging tests are used to produce internal images of the patient’s body and targeted structures. These types of tests can create a visual image of certain abnormalities within the body, such as tumors. Diagnostic imaging tests can identify potential issues that require further testing, such as blood work and biopsies.


X-rays are one of the most common types of diagnostic imaging in the professional medical setting. They are used for a number of purposes, including dentistry and bone imaging. X-rays use a small amount of radiation when creating internal pictures of the patient’s body. Specific types of tests for cancer include mammograms for breast cancer and barium enemas for colorectal X-rays.

CT or CAT Scans

Computerized tomography, also called a CT or CAT scan, uses radiation to generate a 3-dimensional image of a slice or section of a certain area within the patient. CT scans produce much clearer images than standard X-rays, and are therefore a more precise type of test.


Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, uses a magnetic field to produce images of the patient’s major organs, large blood vessels, and soft tissue. Unlike a CT scan, an MRI does not utilize radiation. MRIs are most effective for identifying certain types of cancer, such as brain tumors. MRIs can also be used to help doctors plan surgery, radiation therapy, and other types of cancer treatment.

Bone Scans

Bone scans are used to detect cancer and symptomatic abnormalities that may be present in the patient’s bone. A radioactive tracer is injected into the patient’s vein. The tracer then collects in certain areas of the bone, where it is identified by a special type of camera. Abnormal areas appear darkened in a bone scan, which signifies a potential issue.


Ultrasounds are a type of cancer testing that use high-frequency sound waves to produce an image. These sound waves can be used for a number of purposes, such as identifying whether a lump in the patient’s body is fluid or solid. Ultrasounds are among the safest types of tests for cancer.

Laboratory Tests

Laboratory tests are types of tests used to analyze cells in the body, such as blood, urine, and bodily tissue. Laboratory tests help doctors to identify certain types of proteins and cells that are released into the body by cancer. Additionally, these tests can help doctors to identify if the patient’s organs are functioning abnormally, which can also be an indicator of cancer.

Laboratory tests for cancer may include:

  • Complete blood count (CBC). This test takes a count of various types of blood cells, revealing if too few or too many types of blood cell or abnormal cell are present in the body.
  • Blood protein test. Certain types of cancer may be indicated by abnormal proteins present in the blood. For example, elevated immunoglobins, or immune system proteins, may indicate a type of blood cancer called multiple myeloma.
  • Tumor marker testing. Tumor markers are substances that may indicate certain types of cancer. Tumor markers may be found in the urine, blood, or within the tumor itself. However, tumor markers may be naturally produced. Therefore, tumor marker testing is primarily useful in specific instances.
  • Urine cytology. This type of test involves carefully examining the patient’s urine cells. In cancers of the kidneys, bladder, or ureters, cancer cells may be present in the urine.

Cancer Cell Biopsies

Biopsies are types of tests that involve the removal of small amounts of the patient’s tissue for microscopic examination. Biopsies are typically used when attempting to make a definite diagnosis, as opposed to an initial screening. Biopsies may be performed in several ways. For example, biopsies may involve a thin or thick hollow needle, vacuum pressure, or a surgical incision in the patient’s body.

Endoscopies for Cancer Testing

Endoscopies involve the use of an endoscope, or a tube with an attached camera that is inserted through the mouth or surgical incision. Endoscopies help doctors to examine the internal organs of the patient. Different endoscopy procedures are used to examine different areas.

Types of endoscopies include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Bronchoscopy for lung examination
  • Laparoscopy for pelvic or abdominal examination
  • Colonoscopy for colorectal examination
  • Upper endoscopy for upper gastrointestinal tract examination




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