Diagnosis begins with a thorough physical examination and a complete medical history. The doctor will ob serve, feel, and palpate (apply pressure by touch) different parts of the body in order to identify any variations from the normal size, feel, and texture of the organ or tissue. As part of the physical exam, the doctor will inspect the oral cavity, or the mouth. By focusing a light into the mouth, he or she will look for abnormalities in color, moisture, surface texture, or presence of any thickening or soreness in the lips, tongue, gums, the hard palate on the roof of the mouth, and the throat.
To detect thyroid cancer, the doctor will observe the front of the neck for swelling. He may gently manipulate the neck and palpate the front and side surfaces of the thyroid gland (located at the base of the neck) to detect any nodules or tenderness. As part of the physical examination, the doctor will also palpate the lymph nodes in the neck, under the arms, and in the groin. Many illnesses and cancers cause a swelling of the lymph nodes.
The doctor may conduct a thorough examination of the skin to look for sores that have been present for more than three weeks and that bleed, ooze, or crust; irritated patches that may itch or hurt, and any change in the size of a wart or a mole. Examination of the female pelvis is used to detect cancers of the ovaries, uterus, cervix, and vagina. In the visual examination, the doctor looks for abnormal discharges or the presence of sores. Then, using gloved hands the physician palpates the internal pelvic organs such as the uterus and ovaries to detect any abnormal masses. Breast examination includes visual observation where the doctor looks for any discharge, unevenness, discoloration, or scaling. The doctor palpates both breasts to feel for masses or lumps. For males, inspection of the rectum and the prostate is also included in the physical examination. The doctor inserts a gloved finger into the rectum and rotates it slowly to feel for any growths, tumors, or other abnormalities. The doctor also conducts an examination of the testes, where the doctor observes the genital area and looks for swelling or other abnormalities. The testicles are palpated to identify any lumps, thickening, or differences in the size, weight, and firmness.
If the doctor detects an abnormality on physical examination, or the patient has some symptom that could be indicative of cancer, the doctor may order diagnostic tests. Laboratory studies of sputum (sputum cytology), blood, urine, and stool can detect abnormalities that may indicate cancer. Sputum cytology is a test where the phlegm that is coughed up from the lungs is microscopically examined. It is often used to detect lung cancer.
A blood test for cancer is easy to perform, usually inexpensive and risk-free. Blood tests can be either specific or nonspecific. Often times, in certain cancers, the cancer cells release particular proteins (called tumor markers) and blood tests can be used to detect the presence of these tumor markers. However, with a few exceptions, tumor markers are not used for routine screening of cancers, because several noncancerous conditions also produce positive results. Blood tests are generally more useful in monitoring the effectiveness of the treatment, or in following the course of the disease and detecting recurrent disease.
Imaging tests such as computed tomography scans (CT scans), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), ultra-sound, and fiberoptic scope examinations help doctors determine the location of the tumor even if it is deep within the body. Conventional x rays are often used for initial evaluation, because they are relatively cheap, painless, and easily accessible. In order to increase the information obtained from a conventional x ray, air or a dye (such as barium or iodine) may be used as a contrast medium to outline or highlight parts of the body.
The most definitive diagnostic test is the biopsy, wherein a piece of tissue is surgically removed for microscope examination. Besides confirming a cancer, the biopsy also provides information about the type of cancer, the stage it has reached, the aggressiveness of the cancer, and the extent of its spread. Since a biopsy provides the most accurate analysis, it is considered the gold standard of diagnostic tests. Screening examinations, conducted regularly by healthcare professionals, can result in the detection of cancers of the breast, colon, rectum, cervix, prostate, testes, tongue, mouth, and skin at early stages, when treatment is more likely to be successful. Some of the routine screening tests recommended by the ACS are sigmoidoscopy (for colorectal cancer), mammography (for breast cancer), pap smear (for cervical cancer), and the PSA test (for prostate cancer). Self-examinations for cancers of the breast, testes, mouth, and skin can also help in detecting the tumors before the symptoms become serious.
Diagnosis in alternative treatment often relies on conventional diagnostic tools for determining the type and stage of cancer, but will supplement those tools with diagnostic techniques that strive to evaluate the overall health of a person, in order to treat a person holistically. For instance, Ayurvedic medicine and traditional Chinese medicine place high priorities during diagnosis on the patient's emotional and psychological history, as well as considerations like lifestyle, relationships, and the degree of social and spiritual support, in order to have insight into the cause and proper treatment of a particular cancer. These alternative practices also have highly developed diagnostic techniques for the body, including pulse diagnosis; methods of analyzing the tongue, eyes, skin, hair, and fingernails; palpating and finding problems in the organs and abdomen; and listening to the breath for clues to the internal environment.
Douglas Dupler, Teresa G. Odle, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit,