Most cancers are initially recognized either because signs or symptoms appear or through screening. Neither of these lead to a definitive diagnosis, which usually requires the opinion of a pathologist, a type of physician (medical doctor) who specializes in the diagnosis of cancer and other diseases. People with suspected cancer are investigated with medical tests. These commonly include blood tests, X-rays, CT scans and endoscopy.
A cancer may be suspected for a variety of reasons, but the definitive diagnosis of most malignancies must be confirmed by histological examination of the cancerous cells by a pathologist. Tissue can be obtained from a biopsy or surgery. Many biopsies (such as those of the skin, breast or liver) can be done in a doctor's office. Biopsies of other organs are performed under anesthesia and require surgery in an operating room.
The tissue diagnosis given by the pathologist indicates the type of cell that is proliferating, its histological grade, genetic abnormalities, and other features of the tumor. Together, this information is useful to evaluate the prognosis of the patient and to choose the best treatment. Cytogenetics and immunohistochemistry are other types of testing that the pathologist may perform on the tissue specimen. These tests may provide information about the molecular changes (such as mutations, fusion genes, and numerical chromosome changes) that has happened in the cancer cells, and may thus also indicate the future behavior of the cancer (prognosis) and best treatment.
Typical macroscopic appearance of cancer. This invasive ductal carcinoma of the breast (pale area at the center) shows an oval tumor surrounded by spikes of whitish scar tissue in the surrounding yellow fatty tissue. The silhouette vaguely resembles a crab.