Diagnostic tests and cancer

Many people experience feelings of shock, denial and disbelief when they are given a cancer diagnosis.

You may have feelings of anger and sadness and concern about the future. You may find it hard to understand the diagnosis.

For more information go to living with cancer.

Your diagnosis

When a doctor diagnoses cancer, they will look at all of the following:

  • your symptoms
  • your medical history
  • test results.

Your doctor will explain the type of tests and their relevance to your situation.

Depending on your symptoms, you may need to undergo one or more of the following tests.


A type of high-energy radiation that takes pictures of the inside of the body to diagnose cancer.


The removal of a small amount of tissue or fluid for examination to detect cancer cells.

Blood test

When you give blood for testing of abnormal cells.

Computerised tomography (CT) scan

A series of detailed pictures taken using x-rays from a cross section of the body at different angles. Also called a CT scan or a computerised axial tomography (CAT) scan.


A procedure that uses an endoscope to examine the inside of the body. An endoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and lens for viewing. It may also have a tool to remove tissue (biopsy) to be checked under a microscope for signs of disease.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

An MRI is a non-invasive imaging method that uses both magnetism and radio waves. It provides cross-section images of a particular part of the body to determine the size and shape of a tumour.


Radiological (x-ray) used to identify cysts, calcifications and tumours in the breast.

Positron emission tomography (PET) scan

PET scans detect hot spots in the body to show an accurate map of cancer spread. PET scans complement images from other types of scans. They are only used on certain types of cancers.

PET scans are available at Royal Darwin Hospital.


The ultrasound device uses sound waves that people cannot hear. The device aims sound waves at organs inside the pelvis and the waves bounce off the organs. A computer creates a picture from the echoes.

Questions to ask your doctor

You may have questions for your doctor after your diagnosis but forget in the moment.

You should write down questions and you can record the consultation to help you remember what they said.

It may be a good idea to have a family member or friend with you for support and to ask more questions.

Some cancer organisations produce diaries to help people remember questions, answers and test results.

One example is the 'my journey kit' on the Breast Cancer Network Australia website.

Some examples of questions you can ask are:

  • what are my treatment choices?
  • which treatment do you recommend for me and why?
  • what are the benefits of each treatment?
  • what are the risks of each treatment?
  • what are the side effects of each treatment?
  • where can I get more information to help me make decisions about treatment?
  • will I be able to work?
  • how long will I be off work?
  • how will it affect my life and relationships?
  • has the cancer spread?
  • where has it spread?
  • do I need other tests?

Last updated: 01 November 2019

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