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Cancer diagnosis

It’s easy to feel scared or worried when waiting for a diagnosis—or when you find out you have cancer. Our cancer care teams understand what you’re going through and how to help make sense of it all. We will work with you and your loved ones to create a clear picture of your current condition, what it means, and how to decide on a treatment plan that’s right for you. We’re also equipped to provide many kinds of support—from education to counseling and beyond—because we know firsthand that the physical, mental and emotional effects of cancer can feel overwhelming.

When possible, we recommend finding supportive family members or friends who can be with you through the diagnosis process, whether that means joining appointments in-person or just being tuned in and available to talk about your situation.

 

Detecting cancer

Even before a diagnosis is made, cancer (or just the possibility of it) can show up on your radar in a number of ways. You might have questions about something you noticed during a breast or skin self-exam. Maybe an issue came up as part of a routine mammogram, colonoscopy or other screening. Some people seek out genetic counseling to learn more about their risk and their family’s risk, for a future cancer. 

Whatever the situation, your first stop should always be your primary care provider. Talking about your concerns and your health history, along with a having a physical exam, will help us steer you toward the right people and steps to make a confident diagnosis. And, naturally, the earlier you respond to concerns—your provider’s or your own—the easier it will be to find the right treatment options.

 

How cancer is diagnosed

Here are common ways our cancer care teams get the information they need to make a diagnosis.

lab vials for cancer tests

Lab tests

High or low levels of certain substances in your body can be a sign of cancer. Lab tests help us measure those levels. Samples of blood, urine or other body fluids are taken and evaluated to get useful information about your health.

provider running a biopsy test

Biopsy

A biopsy is when a small sample of tissue is taken from your body using a needle or a surgical procedure. The sample is sent to a lab where it can be screened for cells that could be signs of cancer. The results of a biopsy help to identify types of cancer and determine the right treatment options

cancer imaging tests to detect cancer

Imaging tests

The following imaging tests can help your cancer care team diagnose cancer or see how your body is responding to cancer treatment:

  • CT (computed tomography) exam uses x-ray images and a computer to get an in-depth look at your internal organs, tissues, blood vessels and bones.
  • Mammogram is a low-dose digital X-ray of your breast. The exam involves compressing each breast between two panels for a few seconds so the X-ray can get a clear image of your breast tissue. 
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) uses a magnetic field to make three-dimensional (3-D) images of almost any part of your body. These images show the difference between normal tissue and abnormal tissue.
  • PET (positron emission tomography) scan is a three-dimensional (3-D) view of any part of your body. A small amount of radioactive material, known as a tracer, is injected into your bloodstream. The PET scan shows normal and sometimes abnormal metabolic activity of your body’s tissues and organs.
  • Ultrasound uses sound waves to “see” the inside of your body. A computer monitor shows images created by measuring the sound waves.
  • X-ray uses low doses of radiation to create still images of the inside of your body.

Log in to your Allina Health account to view your lab, biopsy and imaging test results. Please note: In some cases you may see your results before they have been reviewed by your health care provider.

 

genetic counselor at computer

Genetic testing

Based on your type of cancer, your age, your family history or all three, your health care team may recommend that you have genetic counseling. This can help you better understand genetic testing options and how this information may help you and your family. Genetic counseling can happen before, during or after your cancer treatment.

  • Genetic counseling before or during your treatment can be helpful in making a decision about the type of treatment that would be right for you. The results of genetic testing may help determine the best type of surgery or medicine for you.
  • Genetic counseling before or after your treatment can help you plan future cancer care (screening and prevention) for you and your family.

During the visit, your genetic counselor will help you decide if genetic testing is right for you. If you have genetic testing, your genetic counselor will help you understand the results.

You may need a genetic test if you have a family history of cancer or if your doctor has concerns about a diagnosis. Watch this video to learn more about genetic testing and what to expect.

[MUSIC PLAYING] This short video will hopefully help you understand why you were offered genetic testing and what to expect from those results.

I was just diagnosed with cancer by a genetic test. Why now?

There is something about your cancer, such as age of diagnosis, disease type, or family history has raised your doctor's concerns that a gene mutation has contributed to your cancer. Genes are the blueprints for you. They are inherited from your parents. They direct your growth and development.

When some genes are not working properly, it can increase your chance of developing cancer. Only a small percentage of cancers are due to inherited gene mutations. But for those who learn they carry a gene mutation, the potential advantages of genetic testing are substantial.

How can the results of a genetic test be useful to me now or in the future?

The results of genetic testing may have a significant impact on treatment choices. This makes testing especially important for you now. Test results may also alert us to cancer risks not apparent in your family. This may help us prevent such events in the future.

In addition, the knowledge gained through genetic testing can be a major benefit to relatives, male or female.

Can you tell me how a genetic risk might have led to my cancer?

Picture the body as a glass of water. Imagine cancer occurs when someone's glass overflows due to the accumulation of risk factors. Most women who develop cancer have done so over several years for a variety of reasons, such as hormone exposure, excessive weight, lack of exercise, or extreme breast density. Some risks for cancer are not yet known. And most cancer results from random events or strictly by chance.

However, a small percentage of women with breast and ovarian cancer inherited a gene mutation that fills most of their glass. These women are more likely to top off their glass, and therefore get cancer. This often occurs at younger age, and more than once.

The best known genes associated with breast and ovarian cancers are BRCA1 and BRCA2. However, they are not the only ones. Mutations in some genes pose a greater risk than others. Therefore, while some women with a genetic risk will never overflow their glass, they will face greater risks. Often from more than one type of cancer.

Unfortunately, even when we suspect an inherited risk, it may not be identified with current genetic testing.

If I proceed with testing, what will the results tell me? How will it help?

There are three possible results to your test-- positive, negative, and uncertain. A positive result means that a gene mutation was found. Your genetic counselor will provide details of the related risk and explain options moving forward. This knowledge can impact surgical decisions and which medicines your doctor recommends to best treat your cancer.

A positive result can help identify future risks of new cancers for you and your family, men and women. For example, women with breast cancer who have a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation may face an unexpected risk for ovarian cancer. If a gene mutation is found, any relatives who share the gene mutation may benefit from specialized screening and prevention. Those who do not share the gene mutation may avoid unnecessary screening.

A negative test result means that a gene mutation was not found. This is the most common result. While this is not bad or good news, we still do not know the cause of your cancer. In fact, at least half of what appears to be inherited breast cancer is due to unknown risks not found by these tests. If your test is negative, a genetic counselor will provide risk and management information based on your age, type of cancer, and family history.

An uncertain test result means a change in a gene was found. However, it's not known if it's related to your cancer or if it creates any cancer risk at all. This is a common result. If a test result is uncertain, we advise you and your family based on personal and family history. And not on the genetic test results.

Most of you will be scheduled to consult with a genetic counselor. Here, you'll get much more information to help you make an informed decision about genetic testing options and to help prepare you for the results. If you choose to proceed with genetic testing, you will take a simple blood test. Once test results are back in one to three weeks, your genetic counselor will contact you.

For some of you, your doctor may want you to proceed with genetic testing now. If so, you will be scheduled to consult with a genetic counselor to discuss test results and what it means for you and your relatives. Regardless of your test results, it's important for you to keep your genetic counselor updated to any changes in personal or family history.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

More genes are being discovered all the time. We also continually develop new options for screening and prevention.

[MUSIC PLAYING] This short video will hopefully help you understand why you were offered genetic testing and what to expect from those results.

I was just diagnosed with cancer by a genetic test. Why now?

There is something about your cancer, such as age of diagnosis, disease type, or family history has raised your doctor's concerns that a gene mutation has contributed to your cancer. Genes are the blueprints for you. They are inherited from your parents. They direct your growth and development.

When some genes are not working properly, it can increase your chance of developing cancer. Only a small percentage of cancers are due to inherited gene mutations. But for those who learn they carry a gene mutation, the potential advantages of genetic testing are substantial.

How can the results of a genetic test be useful to me now or in the future?

The results of genetic testing may have a significant impact on treatment choices. This makes testing especially important for you now. Test results may also alert us to cancer risks not apparent in your family. This may help us prevent such events in the future.

In addition, the knowledge gained through genetic testing can be a major benefit to relatives, male or female.

Can you tell me how a genetic risk might have led to my cancer?

Picture the body as a glass of water. Imagine cancer occurs when someone's glass overflows due to the accumulation of risk factors. Most women who develop cancer have done so over several years for a variety of reasons, such as hormone exposure, excessive weight, lack of exercise, or extreme breast density. Some risks for cancer are not yet known. And most cancer results from random events or strictly by chance.

However, a small percentage of women with breast and ovarian cancer inherited a gene mutation that fills most of their glass. These women are more likely to top off their glass, and therefore get cancer. This often occurs at younger age, and more than once.

The best known genes associated with breast and ovarian cancers are BRCA1 and BRCA2. However, they are not the only ones. Mutations in some genes pose a greater risk than others. Therefore, while some women with a genetic risk will never overflow their glass, they will face greater risks. Often from more than one type of cancer.

Unfortunately, even when we suspect an inherited risk, it may not be identified with current genetic testing.

If I proceed with testing, what will the results tell me? How will it help?

There are three possible results to your test-- positive, negative, and uncertain. A positive result means that a gene mutation was found. Your genetic counselor will provide details of the related risk and explain options moving forward. This knowledge can impact surgical decisions and which medicines your doctor recommends to best treat your cancer.

A positive result can help identify future risks of new cancers for you and your family, men and women. For example, women with breast cancer who have a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation may face an unexpected risk for ovarian cancer. If a gene mutation is found, any relatives who share the gene mutation may benefit from specialized screening and prevention. Those who do not share the gene mutation may avoid unnecessary screening.

A negative test result means that a gene mutation was not found. This is the most common result. While this is not bad or good news, we still do not know the cause of your cancer. In fact, at least half of what appears to be inherited breast cancer is due to unknown risks not found by these tests. If your test is negative, a genetic counselor will provide risk and management information based on your age, type of cancer, and family history.

An uncertain test result means a change in a gene was found. However, it's not known if it's related to your cancer or if it creates any cancer risk at all. This is a common result. If a test result is uncertain, we advise you and your family based on personal and family history. And not on the genetic test results.

Most of you will be scheduled to consult with a genetic counselor. Here, you'll get much more information to help you make an informed decision about genetic testing options and to help prepare you for the results. If you choose to proceed with genetic testing, you will take a simple blood test. Once test results are back in one to three weeks, your genetic counselor will contact you.

For some of you, your doctor may want you to proceed with genetic testing now. If so, you will be scheduled to consult with a genetic counselor to discuss test results and what it means for you and your relatives. Regardless of your test results, it's important for you to keep your genetic counselor updated to any changes in personal or family history.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

More genes are being discovered all the time. We also continually develop new options for screening and prevention.

Learn more about cancer genetic counseling.

 

nurse navigator helping cancer patient

Nurse navigator

Your nurse navigator will support you during this time of uncertainty by guiding you each step of the way through the diagnosis process. Your navigator is a person you can call when you have any questions—or can simply can be a person to talk to when you’re looking for guidance.

 

Commonly asked questions about diagnosis

When you are told “you might have cancer,” it is easy to feel scared or worried. Your health care team at the Allina Health Cancer Institute is here to help you through this time.

Our goal is to learn more about what was found during a test or imaging test—is it cancer or not. To get the answer, we need to learn more about you. We will look at your health history, risk factors, symptoms and imaging tests. We will learn more about your care goals. We will work together to decide the best way to get the diagnosis and take the right steps to find the answer.

During the diagnosis process, we encourage you to ask anything that’s on your mind and make sure you have answers to these questions:

  • What are my next steps?
  • How long will it take to get my test results?
  • When and how will someone contact me about my results or next steps?
  • Whom can I call if I have questions?

If your diagnosis is cancer, you and your health care team will work together to develop a treatment plan. This plan will be unique to your needs, concerns and preferences.

Find a cancer care location

A diagnostic test is a type of test used to help diagnose a disease or condition such as cancer.

Find a cancer care location

When you have your survivorship visit will depend on the type of treatment you have for your cancer. During this visit, a member of your health care team will:

  • review your recent medical history
  • talk about physical health changes
  • talk about and help you manage side effects of cancer treatment

Together, you will then create a plan for your ongoing health care that is right for you. It will focus on maintaining and improving your quality of life, as you define it, during and after your treatment.

Find a cancer care location

The goal of the cancer survivorship care plan is to help you and your family start to manage the impact of your cancer experience. It will focus on maintaining and improving your quality of life, as you define it, during and after your treatment.

Find a cancer care location

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Help us understand what cancer topics you are interested in, so we can continue to provide the information that matters most to you.

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Find info and support that works for you

We offer educational resources by Allina Health's Cancer Institute providers on a variety of cancer types and work to address the needs of the Twin Cities metro and surrounding areas through our many hospitals and cancer centers. Browse these offerings and discover why we're the right partner for your care.
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A spectrum of support

Clinical treatment is just one of the ways we provide expert care for people and families living with cancer. From money matters to holistic healing programs, our team is committed to serving you as a whole person—body, mind and spirit.

cancer support financial services

Financial services

Patient account representatives can answer your questions about hospital bills or insurance coverage. They also can help you access Allina Health Financial Assistance Services.

Learn more about financial services support

cancer support via advanced care planning

Advance care planning

Advance care planning is the process of giving information to others about your health care choices in case illness or injury prevents you from telling them yourself.

Learn more about advance care planning

cancer support through nutrition therapy

Nutrition therapy

Registered dietitians can assess your food needs and help you set goals to improve eating and manage weight.

Talk with your cancer care provider about the variety of dietitian and nutrition services that are available.

cancer support groups

Support groups

Support groups are designed for people and families affected by cancer. These groups provide a place to connect with others and share thoughts, feelings and ask questions.

Search events and classes

View cancer support groups

cancer support through holistic medicine

Penny George® Institute for Health and Healing

The Penny George Institute helps you improve your well-being by focusing on your whole being—mind, body and spirit.

Learn more about the Penny George® Institute for Health and Healing

cancer palliative care meeting

Palliative care

Palliative care is for anyone who is in any stage of an advanced illness. This is care that provides relief from the symptoms, pain and stress of a serious illness. The goal is to improve quality of life for both you and your family.

Learn more about palliative care

Know what to expect

A cancer diagnosis can change your life in an instant. It’s natural to feel overwhelmed, confused or anxious about what to do next. That’s why we make it easy to find the information and resources you need at this difficult time.