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How is cancer diagnosed?

As New York patients may know, cancer may be detected due to a patient's symptoms or a physical exam. It may also be detected by screening tests done routinely before symptoms are expressed. Either way, cancer must be confirmed using specific tests.

Screening tests such as mammograms and prostate antigen tests are not definitive. The lump visualized on a mammogram or on a routine breast exam may be cancerous or benign. Elevations in prostate antigen may be due to other conditions or prostate cancer. A family history of cancer may augment the level of suspicion. The physician is obligated to do testing that will decide if cancer is present.

Diagnostic tests that confirm the suspicion of cancer include CT scan, ultrasound and biopsy. A biopsy looks at a tissue sample from the organ or a specific area such as a breast lump to determine if cancer cells are present. Tumor markers may be detected in the biopsy and are used for diagnosis and to evaluate treatment. Cancer staging is an invaluable mechanism in determining the spread of cancer as well as helping to choose the best treatment option. Blood tests may be used to determine multi-organ involvement.

One consequence of misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis of cancer is the chance the cancer will spread to other organs or tissues. However, using a proper diagnostic protocol including staging allows a physician to treat the primary lesion as well as distant spread simultaneously.

If a patient's treatment, or lack thereof, was affected by a faulty diagnosis, the patient may choose to file a malpractice suit against the doctor and other health care professionals involved in his or her care. An attorney may assist in building a strong case and filing it in court.

Source: American Cancer Society, "How is cancer diagnosed?", September 30, 2014

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