Not all symptoms are caused by cancer. Your GP or specialist will send you for tests to check what is causing your symptoms.
Your doctors should explain why you are having the tests and what they involve.
What you need to know
Reasons for tests
In most cases, your GP will examine you and send you for tests before you see a specialist. These initial tests are to see if your symptoms are caused by cancer or by something else.
If you do have a cancer, the specialist you see will probably send you for tests to find out more about it. This includes finding out the type of cells the cancer started in and whether it has spread.
Blood tests can measure different things, like the number of blood cells, or the amount of a substance in your blood. People with different cancers may need different tests.
You may have a blood test at your GP’s office, in a hospital, or at a special blood collection centre.
Medical imaging tests
Medical imaging is the name used for tests that produce pictures or images of the inside of the body. These include:
- CT scan
- MRI scan
- PET scan
- ultrasound examinations.
You will need to go to a hospital radiology department or a private imaging centre to have these tests.
In an endoscopy, a doctor looks inside part of the body, using an endoscope. This is an instrument with a light and a camera at one end and an eyepiece at the other. Many endoscopes have small tools that the doctor can use to take biopsies (samples) of the organs or tissues being looked at.
There are different types of endoscopy:
Some endoscopies can be done in a doctor’s office but most will be done in a hospital or special clinic. You may be given sedation or an anaesthetic.
A biopsy is when a doctor removes a small piece of the lump or area that might be cancer. A pathologist looks at this under a microscope to see if it is a cancer.
There are different ways of taking biopsies, including:
- fine needle – uses a small needle to collect cells or fluid from a lump
- core or needle – uses a larger needle to remove a small piece of the lump
- vacuum – uses suction to collect a sample through a needle
- punch – uses a special tool to collect a skin biopsy
- surgical – removes all of a lump (excisional biopsy) or part of a lump (incisional biopsy)
- endoscopic – uses cutting tools to collect a sample through an endoscope
- bone marrow – uses a special needle to remove a sample of bone marrow to test for blood cancers.
Some biopsies can be done in a doctor’s office but most will be done in a hospital or special clinic. You may be given sedation or an anaesthetic.
What to ask or talk about
Preparing for tests
Going for tests can make some people nervous, but knowing what to expect can help.
Your GP or specialist should tell you why you need each test and what it involves. Use our checklists to help you know what to ask.
Sometimes you need to contact the place where you are having the test for more information. This can include how to prepare for the test, how much it will cost and what you will get back from Medicare and your private health fund.
Ask how long it will take before you hear the results of the test.
Getting test results
It is normal to feel anxious when you are waiting for test results.
Your GP or specialist should tell you when the results will be ready and how you will find out about them. Usually you need to make an appointment to get the results.
It is a good idea to take someone with you when you go for this appointment.