Cancer Tests Guide: Screening & Diagnostic

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Cancer tests help us find cancer. There are 2 main types: screening & diagnostic. Learn the difference, plus:

  • Why you need cancer screenings when you’re healthy
  • Tests for different cancers
  • When you might need a special screening or diagnostic cancer test

I’m Healthy. Why Do I Need to Be Screened for Cancer?

Imagine your body is a car. Sometimes, problems happen in the car’s engine (your body’s cells). These might lead to serious issues, like a breakdown (cancer). You take your car for a maintenance check. This way, mechanics can find and fix any issues before you break down on the side of the road.

Cancer screenings are like regular check-ups for your car. We do them when you're feeling fine. We can catch a small issue early. And then it’s easier to fix.

What Cancer Tests Do I Need When I’m Healthy?

You should get some cancer screenings before any symptoms arise. Why? Because they save lives. They look for the most common cancers. You can get:

And if you’re a longtime smoker, you’ll want to have:

Pap smears and colonoscopies offer a bonus: They can find precancer cells. Doctors can remove these cells before they have a chance to turn into cancer.

How Do I Know When to Get Cancer Screenings?

Your primary care provider is the best person to ask. What screening test you need, and when, is based on lots of things. This includes whether you have male or female body parts and your:

  • Age
  • Family history
  • Smoking history

Like with your car, the more miles on your body, the greater the chance of a breakdown (cancer). You’ll need more screenings in your mid and later decades.

Get checked for these cancers starting at age:

  • 21 for cervical cancer
  • 40 for breast cancer
  • 45 for colon cancer
  • 50 for lung cancer if you're a longtime heavy smoker

You may need to start screening at an earlier age if you have a family history or other risk factors for certain cancers. Talk to your doctor and see who needs genetic testing for cancer.

Cancer Screenings for People at High Risk

We have lots of screening tests for people at high risk for certain types of cancer. We just don’t recommend these screenings for people with no symptoms and at average risk for cancer.

If you have a family history of cancer or other risk factors for certain cancers, talk to your doctor. They'll know if these cancer tests might be right for you.

Breast Cancer

Breast MRI imaging screens if you’re at high risk for breast and other cancers.

Liver Cancer

We use both the alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) blood test and ultrasound imaging to watch for liver cancer.

Ovarian Cancer

The CA-125 blood test can be used to detect ovarian cancer. It’s often done with a transvaginal ultrasound to create pictures of the ovaries and uterus. 

Pancreatic Cancer

Pancreas cyst scans watch for pre-cancerous cells in those at high risk for pancreatic cancer.

Prostate Cancer

The PSA (prostate-specific antigen) blood test scans for prostate cancer. It’s usually done along with a digital rectal exam.

Skin Cancer

A skin exam looks for signs of melanoma or other skin cancers.

Isn’t There a Blood Test That Can Detect Lots of Different Cancers?

These are called multi-cancer detection (MCD) tests. They measure biological signals shed by cancer cells. These may detect lots of different types of cancer. But we don’t yet know whether MCD cancer tests are effective for cancer screening in people without symptoms.

Diagnostic vs. Screenings: What’s the Difference?

A cancer screening might show something is wrong. But this doesn’t mean you have the condition. You get screened while you’re healthy.

If a screening shows a problem, or if you have symptoms, that’s when we do a diagnostic test.

A diagnostic test is like taking your car to the mechanic when it makes strange noises. In your body, this means you’re having symptoms. Diagnostic tests figure out what's really going on.

Only diagnostic cancer tests tell us for sure if it’s cancer. These tests also tell us what type of cancer and where it is in the body.

What Types of Diagnostic Tests Can Uncover Cancer?

Diagnostic tests can find whether cancer is behind your symptoms. They help doctors find the best ways to treat your cancer.

Diagnostic cancer tests you might need include:

  • Biopsy (taking a small tissue sample and looking at it with a microscope)
  • Imaging scans like an MRI or CT
  • Blood tests

For some cancers, diagnostic tests can even show doctors what type of genetic mutations your cancer has. This way, we know what treatments will work best.

Cancer Tests at UVA Health

At UVA Health, you can trust that we use the latest tools for finding cancer. We have some of the only clinics in the state dedicated to screening high-risk patients. We offer second opinions for those who want to make sure they have the right diagnosis.

And we do screenings in communities throughout Virginia. We do everything we can to extend the very best healthcare to anyone who needs it.