Tests for Cervical Cancer
First, the doctor will ask you about your personal and family medical history. This includes information related to risk factors and symptoms of cervical cancer. A complete physical exam will help evaluate your general state of health. The doctor will do a pelvic exam and may do a Pap test if one has not already been done. In addition, your lymph nodes will be felt for evidence of metastasis (cancer spread).
The Pap test is a screening test, not a diagnostic test. It cannot tell for certain if you have cervical cancer. An abnormal Pap test result may mean more testing, sometimes including tests to see if a cancer or a pre-cancer is actually present. The tests that are used include colposcopy (with biopsy), endocervical scraping, and cone biopsies.
The following tests may be used to diagnose cervical cancer:
- Bimanual pelvic examination. In this examination, the doctor will check a woman’s body for any unusual changes in her cervix, uterus, vagina, ovaries, and other nearby organs. To start, the doctor will look for any changes to the woman’s vulva outside the body and then, using an instrument called a speculum to keep the vaginal walls open, the doctor will look inside the woman’s body. Some of the nearby organs are not visible during this exam, so the doctor will insert 2 fingers of 1 hand inside the patient’s vagina while the other hand gently presses on the lower abdomen to feel the uterus and ovaries. This exam typically takes a few minutes and is done in an examination room at the doctor’s office. A Pap test is often done at the same time.
Pap test. During a Pap test, your doctor scrapes and brushes cells from your cervix, which are then examined in a lab for abnormalities.
A Pap test can detect abnormal cells in the cervix, including cancer cells and cells that show changes that increase the risk of cervical cancer.
HPV DNA test. The HPV DNA test involves testing cells collected from the cervix for infection with any of the types of HPV that are most likely to lead to cervical cancer.
- Colposcopy. The doctor may do a colposcopy to check the cervix for abnormal areas. Colposcopy can also be used to help guide a biopsy of the cervix. A special instrument called a colposcope is used. The colposcope magnifies the cells of the cervix and vagina, similar to a microscope. It gives the doctor a lighted, magnified view of the tissues of the vagina and the cervix. The colposcope is not inserted into the woman’s body, and the examination is not painful. It can be done in the doctor's office and has no side effects. It can be done on pregnant women.
- Biopsy. A prostate biopsy is a when a doctor removes small samples of tissue from your prostate to test for cancer. Your doctor will order one if the results from a screening (a blood test or a digital rectal exam) show you might have prostate cancer.
This type of cancer is very common. An estimated 174,000 men will be diagnosed with it this year, and about 31,000 will die from it. Still, for most men, it often causes no problems or is easily treated. A diagnosis of prostate cancer cannot be made without a biopsy. The prostate is beneath the bladder and in front of the rectum. It’s a walnut-shaped gland that surrounds part of the urethra. (That’s the tube that carries pee and semen out of the penis). Here’s what it does:
It produces fluid for semen, which includes sperm produced in the testicles.
It prevents urine from being included during ejaculation.
- Pelvic examination under anesthesia. In cases where it is necessary for treatment planning, the specialist may re-examine the pelvic area while the patient is under anesthesia to see if the cancer has spread to any organs near the cervix, including the uterus, vagina, bladder, or rectum.
- X-ray. An x-ray is a way to create a picture of the structures inside of the body using a small amount of radiation. An intravenous urography is a type of x-ray that is used to view the kidneys and bladder.
- Computed tomography (CT or CAT) scan. A CT scan takes pictures of the inside of the body using x-rays taken from different angles. A computer combines these pictures into a detailed, 3-dimensional image that shows any abnormalities or tumors. A CT scan can be used to measure the tumor’s size. Sometimes, a special dye called a contrast medium is given before the scan to provide better detail on the image. This dye can be injected into a patient’s vein or given as a pill or liquid to swallow.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An MRI uses magnetic fields, not x-rays, to produce detailed images of the body. MRI can be used to measure the tumor’s size. A special dye called a contrast medium is given before the scan to create a clearer picture. This dye can be injected into a patient’s vein or given as a pill or liquid to swallow.
- Positron emission tomography (PET) or PET-CT scan. A PET scan is usually combined with a CT scan (see above), called a PET-CT scan. However, you may hear your doctor refer to this procedure just as a PET scan. A PET scan is a way to create pictures of organs and tissues inside the body. A small amount of a radioactive sugar substance is injected into the patient’s body. This sugar substance is taken up by cells that use the most energy. Because cancer tends to use energy actively, it absorbs more of the radioactive substance. A scanner then detects this substance to produce images of the inside of the body.
If there signs or symptoms of bladder or rectal problems, these procedures may be recommended:
- Cystoscopy. A cystoscopy is a procedure that allows the doctor to view the inside of the bladder and urethra (the canal that carries urine from the bladder) with a thin, lighted tube called a cystoscope. The person may be sedated as the tube is inserted in the urethra. A cystoscopy is used to determine whether cancer has spread to the bladder.
- Sigmoidoscopy (also called a proctoscopy). A sigmoidoscopy is a procedure that allows the doctor to see the colon and rectum with a thin, lighted, flexible tube called a sigmoidoscope. The person may be sedated as the tube is inserted in the rectum. A sigmoidoscopy is used to see if the cancer has spread to the rectum.
After diagnostic tests are done, your doctor will review all of the results with you. If the diagnosis is cervical cancer, these results also help the doctor describe the cancer. This is called staging.