Cancer Symptoms and Diagnosis

What is cancer?

Cancer is an abnormal, uncontrolled multiplication of cells. The mass of cancer cells eventually becomes large enough to produce lumps, masses, or tumors that can be detected, these abnormal growths can be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous), in which case they may grow into adjacent tissue and/or spread (metastasize) to distant parts of the body.


Cancer can cause a variety of symptoms, including:

  • Presence of a new lump in the breast or any other part of the body
  • Presence of a new mole or a change in the appearance of an existing wart or mole
  • A sore or wound that does not heal
  • Nagging cough or hoarseness
  • Changes in bowel or bladder habits
  • Indigestion or difficulty swallowing
  • Unexplained changes in weight
  • Unusual bleeding or discharge

Many other conditions have similar symptoms. Make sure you tell your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms.

Types of cancer

Carcinomas - cancers that occur in epithelial surfaces - the cells that form the outer surface of the body to line or cover the body's cavities, tubes and passageways.
- cancers that form on a glandular surface, such as the lung, breast, prostate, ovary or kidney.
Sarcomas - cancers that occur in supporting structures, such as bone, muscle, cartilage, fat or fibrous tissue.
Leukemias and lymphomas - cancers that occur in blood cell elements.

How are the symptoms and types of cancer diagnosed?

When symptoms suggest cancer, your doctor may request or perform any of the following procedures to help diagnose it:

  • A detailed medical history - family and personal
  • A thorough physical exam
  • Pelvic exam of the uterus, vagina, ovaries, bladder, and rectum (for women only)
  • Pap test at the time of pelvic exam (for women only)
  • Rectal exam of the prostate and rectum (for men only)

Other diagnostic procedures may be requested. These include:

  • Imaging tests, such as:

    • X-rays  

    • Computed tomography (CT or CAT scan)A noninvasive diagnostic imaging procedure that uses a combination of X-ray and computer technology to produce detailed  images (often called slices) of the body. The CT scan may  show tumors or indicate enlarged lymph nodes--a possible sign of a spreading cancer or of an infection. 

    • Radionuclide or nuclear medicine scan. An imaging scan in which a small amount of radioactive substance is injected into the vein. A machine measures levels of radioactivity in certain tissues or organs, thereby detecting any abnormal areas or tumors. Some examples are bone scans, PET scans, thyroid scans, and gallium scans.

    • Ultrasound. An imaging technique that uses high-frequency sound waves to produce an image on a monitor of the abdominal organs, such as the uterus, liver, and kidneys.

    • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). A noninvasive procedure that produces detailed views of an internal organ or structure, especially the brain and spinal cord, without the use of X-rays. The MRI may show abnormal nodules in bones or lymph nodes--a sign that cancer may be spreading.

  • Endoscopy. Use of a flexible tube with a lens or tiny camera (and a light on the end), which is connected to a computer screen, allowing the doctor to see inside the hollow organs, such as the esophagus, stomach, intestines, bladder, or uterus. Biopsy samples (tiny pieces of tissue) can be taken through the tube for further evaluation.

  • Laboratory tests. These are done to examine blood, urine, other fluids, or tumor tissue from a biopsy.

  • Biopsy. This is done to remove a sample of the suspicious tissue for examination in a lab by a pathologist. Biopsy can be done with several different  procedures depending on the location of the tumor and size. Endoscopy, needle biopsy with image guidance, and surgical biopsy are a few examples.

For most types of cancer, exams and imaging tests might suggest a person has cancer, but a biopsy is usually needed to be sure of the diagnosis.

Once the cancer is diagnosed, an evaluation will be made to determine the extent (stage) of the cancer. This is often done with some of the imaging tests described above.

Cancer grades and stages

After the determination is made as to the type of cancer, the cancer is graded from low to high - a measurement of how aggressive the tumor is. Once cancer is diagnosed, more tests will be done to find out if the cancer cells have spread to other parts of the body. This testing is called staging.


The following are the most common methods of treating the major types of cancer. Get more information on treatment at the Markey Cancer Center.  

Advances in surgery, radiation and medical oncology often involve breakthrough technology. The Markey Cancer Center is committed to providing access to clinical trials to our patients.

  Learn more about the cancer teams at Markey 


It can be difficult to manage the emotional and physical side effects of cancer after diagnosis or treatment, especially if your child has cancer. Our Psych-Oncology Services staff are available to help our patients and their caregivers cope throughout their treatment. Visit the National Cancer Institute's Coping with Cancer website for answers on how to cope with fatigue, pain, anxiety and depression.

More than 100 different types of cancer exist and each type of cancer must be treated differently at different stages of disease. Markey Cancer Center's expert teams are committed to developing new and more advanced ways to fight cancer and utilizing breakthrough technology to maintain and improve patients' quality of life.


Page last updated: 1/26/2017 12:17:06 PM