Where, when and how to test for cancer
7 minute read
Understanding cancer testing
Everything you need to know about getting checked for cancer and why it’s important
At GenesisCare, we’re often contacted by people asking us where they can go to get a cancer test, or what kind of test they need to diagnose cancer.
It’s more important than ever that people know this information, especially as Cancer Research UK is predicting a backlog of people who might – in a normal year – have been diagnosed with cancer but have missed their regular screening or been unable to go for hospital tests during the COVID-19 pandemic.
So, we’ve provided this information to ensure that anyone concerned about cancer can be signposted to the right place.
Why test for cancer?
First of all, consider why a timely cancer diagnosis is so important. After all, some might think it’s better not to know as isn’t the outcome the same? The answer, of course, is absolutely ‘no’. In fact, apart from lifestyle changes like stopping smoking, the biggest single thing we can all do to prevent people dying of cancer is to make sure they come forward sooner to get diagnosed.
The reason for this is the way cancer develops. Cancer is the abnormal growth of cells and can form anywhere in the body. If it stays local (where it started), it usually responds well to treatment. However, it does most harm when it spreads to other organs forming secondary tumours (also called metastases) by which time it’s much harder to control. Doctors use a staging system from 1 to 4 to describe how far cancer is spreading, with 4 being the most advanced (widely spread).
Medical experts realised a long time ago that early diagnosis would play a major role in improving survival and set a target to increase the number of people diagnosed at stage 1 or 2. Largely as a result of this, since 1980 the number of people surviving cancer has almost doubled. In 2018, there were just over 242,000 cancers diagnosed with a recorded stage. Of those, 55% were stages 1 or 2. Some types of cancer are particularly likely to be detected in early stages 1 and 2, for example 86% of breast cancers and 89% of skin melanomas, helping to make these two of the most survivable cancers today.
So, in many respects, the science of cancer testing is one of the most important advances in cancer survival in the last 50 years.
How to test for cancer
With very few exceptions, there is no single test that will detect cancer. There are a lot of tests and scans available, and the list is growing every year as scientists find more ingenious ways to outsmart cancer. Depending on symptoms, you might undergo at least one of these:
Often referred to as medical imaging, the most frequently used are ultrasound, mammogram, MRI and CT (a type of X-ray) scans. There are many techniques used to investigate different parts of the body, such as tomosynthesis for breast cancer, and these can detect possible cancer in minute detail. Equally important, it’s also possible to quickly rule out a problem without the need for further investigation.
This involves taking a small piece from the area of tissue being investigated so it can be examined in a laboratory. Cancer cells change their appearance as they mutate so can often be clearly identified under a microscope by scientists. Your doctor can take a biopsy in a clinic, for example with a very fine needle, with local anaesthetic. Other times, a biopsy may be taken during surgery or a procedure called an endoscopy to remove a lump or obstruction to find out if it’s cancerous.
People frequently ask, can blood tests show up cancer? With the exception of blood cancers like leukaemia, most cancers aren’t diagnosed from a blood test. Blood tests are used to check overall health and also sometimes to look for ‘markers’, substances in your blood which can be a sign of cancer.
Cancer happens when genes inside our cells misfire and mutate. Scientists are rapidly building a huge understanding of the genetic make-up of different cancers and are designing tests to detect these. Also, some people are more at risk of getting cancer because they carry a particular gene mutation and increasingly we can test for these too.
As this area of medicine and science advances, there are more genetic tests on the horizon that can tell us, not only what cancer we might have, but also how best to treat it.
Now we’ve discussed what cancer tests and tools are available – how, when and where can you access them?
Screening vs. diagnosis
There are successful national screening programmes for breast, cervical and bowel cancer offered by the NHS to everyone who is at risk because of their age, gender, or perhaps a lifestyle factor.
You may ask why can’t you screen everyone for cancer? There are well over 100 different types of cancer and for most of them there is no simple screening test that can give a reliable ‘yes/no’. For most people, their risk of having one of these cancers in their lifetime is extremely low, and so it’s just not worth the unnecessary stress and medical intervention.
Remember, screening is for people who don’t have symptoms. In fact, a study in the medical publication The Lancet showed that nine out of every ten cancers are detected outside these routine screens. That means that the best way to get diagnosed is to come forward with symptoms.
One of the challenges is that cancer symptoms can be non-specific and often dismissed as something else. They come under these general headings and you can get more information about specific symptoms for different cancers here.
- Coughing, chest pain and breathlessness
- Changes in bowel habits
- Lump in your breast
- Unexplained weight loss
- Unexplained bleeding
- Changes in a mole
The best advice is to be aware of what’s normal for you – people are generally very good at sensing something is wrong. It may mean unnecessary worry, but for the reasons we have said earlier, it’s very important that you get possible cancer symptoms checked out and don’t leave it.
Where to go to get a cancer test
If you have symptoms, contact your GP. They’ll arrange for you to have any cancer tests or scans. You can also go to a specialist diagnostic clinic, where they have experts and equipment needed to provide a fast result. At GenesisCare we run these clinics for a wide range of symptoms, including those relating to the breasts, prostate, bladder, blood and head and neck, with the advantage that appointments are often available within 24 hours and you don’t always need a GP referral. There’s a full list of all our diagnostic clinics here.
How long does it take to get a cancer diagnosis?
Depending on the nature of your symptoms and the tests you have, you can expect cancer test results in a matter of days. For most people, their symptoms aren’t a sign of cancer and they’ll often get these results on the same day.
- A scan result, such as a mammogram or ultrasound, is usually ready on the day
- Biopsy and blood test results are usually available within a few days, but it may take up to 10 days, depending on the type of test you had and what analysis is needed
At GenesisCare we pride ourselves on keeping waiting times as short as possible. We appreciate it’s a very worrying time, and we don’t want anyone to wait any longer than necessary so they can either start vital treatment or get that all-important all-clear.
Worried about a cancer diagnosis?
Half of people born after 1960 are expected to develop cancer within their lifetime. It’s not surprising then that the majority of adults worry at least occasionally about getting cancer and the emotional and physical impact this might have. But there are many studies to show that cancer caught early is easier to treat. There are many treatment options available, which can mean fewer side effects, fewer hospital visits and less disruption to everyday life. So, if it’s for you or a loved one, don’t wait and worry about symptoms – book a cancer test today.
Here at GenesisCare, we’re committed to early diagnosis to get the best possible outcome for our patients. We have opened even more specialist diagnostic centres throughout 2020 and have a very wide range of cancer tests and scans, with teams of experts on hand to give you answers quickly.
If you’re concerned about any symptoms, talk to a doctor as soon as possible or you can attend one of our cancer diagnostic clinics.