Cancer Diagnosis

How will I be diagnosed?

If cancer is suspected your GP will arrange a specific test to confirm a diagnosis.

These may include:

  • Biopsy. A very small amount of tissue, bone or bone marrow is collected through a needle or surgery. This is sent to a pathology lab where they check for cancer cells under a microscope.
  • Blood or urine testing. This is done to learn more about the type of cancer and if it could be affecting other parts of the body.
  • Imaging. CT, PET or MRI scans are done to show the presence, location and size of an abnormal mass or tumour.

What tests will I have?

Depending on the type of cancer you are thought to have, some tests are better suited than others. Other factors such as your age, medical conditions or if you may want to have children in the future might also determine which tests you’re given.

Having a test can be a daunting process so ask a loved one or friend to go with you.

Don’t expect to remember all the questions you have beforehand, or all the answers you’ll be given. As you think of things before your appointment, write them down and make brief notes of the things you feel are most important, or ask your friend or family member to do this for you. Your clinician or doctor will always go through things with you again, so don’t worry that you have to remember everything at once.

Some questions to ask your GP or specialist:

  • What will this test tell us?
  • Are there any risks or side effects?
  • Are there alternative tests?
  • What will happen during the test?
  • How should I prepare for it?
  • How do I make an appointment for the test?
  • When will I get the results?
  • Will Medicare or my private insurance cover the cost?
  • How long will it take?
  • Will I need to have someone drive or help me get home afterwards?
  • How am I likely to feel afterwards?

Unfortunately some tests do have side effects so you must tell your doctor if you experience anything, even if you’ve been told to expect it.

You may find that the process of getting the best possible diagnosis, with all the tests can be quite stressful. Share your worries and concerns with your doctor so they can help. It’s not uncommon to be worried or depressed, tired, or have some pain. You may also be concerned about digestive, urinary or bowel problems or sexual issues. These are all normal fears but don’t suffer in silence, ask.

While this is a big and daunting learning experience for you, doctors, specialists and health care teams are trained and experienced professionals who only want the best outcome for you. With them, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about

More tests?

Sometimes as a cancer progresses or changes you might need more or different tests to see how your body is reacting to both the cancer and the treatment.

You will hear cancer being described in grades and stages.

Stages & Grades
Cancer goes through stages and these stages are based on the size of the tumour, whether the cancer is in the lymph nodes, the surrounding tissues and whether it has spread to other parts of the body.

A stage describes how far the cancer has progressed. Lower numbers I and II indicate early states of cancer, while higher numbers (III and IV) indicate the disease is more advanced. Staging depends on many factors, like the type of cancer.

A grade describes the way cancer tissue appears under a microscope. Nearly normal is Grade 1, while Grade 4 is ‘undifferentiated’. In general, the higher grade tumours are more aggressive and carry a worse prognosis.

As staging & grading are complex and depend on each individual case, you are best to discuss these further with your treatment specialist.

More information here

After diagnosis

Diagnosis and treatment of cancer has improved dramatically and for many types of cancer the chances of recovery are good. Survival rates are continually improving with early detection and improved treatment but they vary widely depending on the type of cancer, age, gender, general health and lifestyle.

Testing has become more accurate but don’t be afraid to get a second opinion before you make any decisions about your treatment as it might help you make a decision you feel more comfortable with.


Infusion pump feeding IV drip into patients arm focus on needle


The Big ‘C’ – Change

Cancer will, without doubt, change your life and affect the lives of your loved ones. When you’re first told that you have cancer, you will probably be in shock. In the space of a minute, your life as you knew it will change. It’s inevitable that you’ll fear the worst and find the news difficult to comprehend. For a while, you’ll be able to think of little else, and often and it will take a while, perhaps weeks, to accept.

There’s no right or wrong way to react. People are different and everyone handles it in their own way. Some people may find themselves in denial while others may simply wonder why it’s happened to them, a question that’s often unanswerable.

While all these feelings are normal, if they persist they can be detrimental to your treatment and recovery. If you’re still experiencing these feelings strongly in the weeks or months after your diagnosis, your doctor might feel it’s best to refer you to a counsellor to help you deal with them.

You may hear the words ‘cancer journey’ a lot and for good reason. A journey suggests travel from one place to another and as you go through your cancer treatment, you’re doing just that. From diagnosis to shock, acceptance, treatment and recovery, these are all steps on your path.

People have different strengths and abilities, so when addressing your cancer, think about the sort of person you are. You might take comfort in finding out all you can about the type of cancer you have, or you might benefit from talking it through with a close friend or loved one. Quickly developing a support network around you has a lot of great benefits too.

You’ll adopt different ways of coping but there are things you can do to help that strengthen that ability.

Find and welcome the support of friends and loved ones. There are lots of organisations that provide support for cancer patients and usually you’ll be able to find one near you.

Some useful links to support organisations are listed below.

Learn what you can about your cancer and its treatment.
Take control over things that are within your control, such as diet and exercise.

Know what’s important to you and don’t be apologetic for how you feel.

Try and use your sense of humour.

Fear of death is a common feeling for anyone with a serious disease, particularly in the early stages when you don’t have all the information to hand and you don’t know what to expect. Once your treatment is underway, these feelings often lessen.

Cancer isn’t a death sentence. There are now more than 1 million Australians living who have been diagnosed with cancer and have survived. This is a reflection of how well the disease is being detected and treated, with advancements in public health, awareness, technology, treatment and pain management year every year.

Young scientist works in modern biological lab


Finding Hope

Hope and realism are different but closely related. One can be hopeful that a situation will work out for the best, but must also remain realistic to avoid a false sense of hope, in other words, denial.

Being hopeful is a positive way of thinking, feeling and acting. Having a positive belief that what lies ahead isn’t all bad can help you get through difficult situations. While you can’t avoid the realities of a situation, deciding how you approach and deal with them is completely within your control.

Beginning your cancer treatment can be a source of hope for many people. Working through a treatment program with your health care team and making choices that you feel are right for you may also provide a sense of hope and control at a time when many decisions are out of your hands.

Some people prefer to look at their cancer in small increments of time, such as from one treatment or week to the next, rather than a long, unknown road. Other people prefer to just get through it, seeing hope as the end of the treatment. There’s no right or wrong, just what’s best for you.

You might find being diagnosed with cancer makes you think of what’s important in your life. You may re-evaluate your priorities, both on a larger scale and on a day-to-day basis. Expect that your goals will change, decide who you want to spend more or less time with, think about the activities that fill your days and let these thoughts guide you through your life, during treatment and indeed afterwards.

Changes in your priorities might happen gradually or in a rush and some of these changes may well be confusing to people around you. Talk to your friends and loved ones about what you’re thinking and feeling and help them understand why you might be feeling differently from before you had cancer.

People with cancer also say it brought them unexpectedly good things. Often people tap into an unknown resilience and an ability to face challenges and made them better able to cope.

Feelings of appreciating life more and recognising what’s important are common and cancer survivors often go on to support others going through the same things, being inspired by their experiences to ‘give back’.

Finding a renewed sense of spirituality and acceptance are also common. Knowing that some things are simply out of our control, regardless of how much we worry about them can be liberating.

Cancer is personal and how you deal with it is unique. Finding your own ways to cope, that suit you best, will always work better than simply following what someone else tells you.

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