Understanding a Cancer Diagnosis

Finding out that you, or a loved one, have cancer can be devastating. While we are continuously exposed to information in the media on cancer prevalence and research, nothing prepares us for such news. It is natural for the mind to be flooded with confusing and discouraging thoughts. Guilt, blame, anger, despondency and denial are only some of the range of emotional reactions that one could experience. It has been found that most of these emotions are manifestations of fear – the fear of not knowing what the diagnosis means and what it will entail. The best place to begin would be to know exactly what ‘your’ diagnosis means – as there are various tests that are used to diagnose different types and stages of cancer and every journey of treatment and cure is unique and based on a number of medical and non-medical factors.
The process of testing to detect a cancer follows a hierarchy, more or less. Some types of cancers, such as those of the breast, mouth, skin, prostrate, rectum, etc. are likely to be first detected by routine physical examination or other screening measures before the symptoms actually become serious. At other times, only once a tumour can actually be felt or some unusual symptoms develop, the cancer is detected. Then there are times when a cancer is incidentally detected when medical reports are being evaluated for other reasons, as lab tests of blood, urine and stool can detect abnormalities that may indicate cancer.
More specialised tests to confirm the presence, location and extent/size of the cancer. These include imaging tests such as X-rays, computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), ultrasound and fibre-optic endoscopy examinations. In most cases, a biopsy is called for to confirm the diagnosis of most cancers, as this test actually studies a tissue sample, which is removed from the suspected tumour, under a microscope, to check for cancer cells.
Even after the biopsy, there are other tests performed to determine specific information about the cancer. These follow up tests reveal what stage the cancer is in, i.e., whether it has spread from the origin and how much. There are broadly five stages of cancer. These are characterised by the extent to which the cancerous cells have spread until the time of diagnosis. There are also tests that could confirm how aggressively the cancer is progressing.
Once confirmed, both the type and stage of the cancer determine the future course of action. There are various conventional and unconventional methods of treatment. Single or multiple rounds of Surgery, Chemotherapy and Radiation therapy, individually or in combination, are usually recommended for various types of cancers, depending on the diagnosis and response to the treatment. Alternative medicine also offers options for treatment and control of the side effects of cancers. These methods usually have their own diagnostic procedures that are sometimes beyond the scope of conventional laboratories.
At the end of the day, it helps to look at testing and diagnosis as road maps to the treatment and potential cures for cancer, rather than life sentences. And, the earlier cancer is diagnosed and treated, the better the chance of it being cured.