How is cancer in young people diagnosed?

Working out if someone has cancer, and then determining the type and best way to treat it, usually involves lots of tests.

The process usually starts at your GP’s surgery. If you have symptoms that could be related to cancer – like pain or fatigue or a lump – your GP will do a physical examination and maybe order a full blood count. If your GP thinks you could have cancer they will refer you to a specialist doctor for more tests.

The specialist will explain which tests you need to have. (The most common ones are listed below.)

You might have a few different tests – first to find out if you do have a cancer, and then to confirm the cancer type and stage and get any other information needed to plan your treatment.

Commonly used diagnostic tests include:

  • biopsy – taking a small sample of tissue from your body (using a needle or scalpel) to look for signs of cancer
  • blood tests – to look for indicators of cancer and/or to monitor the amount of red cells, white cells and platelets in your blood (which can all be affected by cancer)
  • bone marrow biopsy and aspiration – taking a sample of your bone marrow (soft tissue inside your larger bones) to test your body’s production of blood cells, to diagnose leukaemia or lymphoma, or see how you are responding to treatment
  • bone scan – a scan of your bones after you have a mildly radioactive fluid injected into your vein, to show up any unusual activity (potential sign of cancer) in your bones
  • CT (or CAT) scan – a scan that takes detailed cross-sectional pictures from various angles, to show exactly where a tumour is and how big it is
  • lumbar puncture – using a very small needle to draw a small amount of spinal fluid to check for cancer in your central nervous system
  • mammogram – x-ray of breast tissue
  • MRI – using magnetism and radio waves to take detailed pictures of soft tissue structures and show some types of tumours
  • neurological tests – tests to assess your motor (movement) and/or sensory skills (ability to feel, see and sense items around you), usually to diagnose a cancer in the brain or spine. Specific tests include angiography, fluoroscopy, biopsy, brain scan (neuroimaging), EEG, evoked potentials, myelography, and PET scan.
  • ultrasound – scan of your internal organs using sound waves
  • x-ray – using radiation to identify changes in tissues or bones in the body.

Don’t be afraid to ask your specialist what to expect and how to prepare for the test. Find more detailed information about diagnostic tests here.