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Types of scans for cancer

Know the types of scans you may have throughout treatment

Types of Cancer Scans

When you found out you had cancer, you may have had an imaging scan, such as an MRI or a CT scan. You’ll likely have more scans throughout your treatment. They help your doctor to see what is happening inside your body.

How doctors use imaging scans

How Doctors Use Imaging Scans

Your doctor may use imaging scans during diagnosis and treatment to:

  • Look for cancer in an early stage
  • Help find tumors (abnormal growths, masses, or lumps) in the body
  • Help find out the stage of cancer
  • Help your doctor choose your treatment plan
  • Show if the tumor has changed during treatment to help your doctor know if the treatment is working
  • See if a cancer has returned after treatment

Types of imaging scans

Your doctor may use many types of imaging scans to help choose your treatment plan. Common types of imaging scans used for cancer include MRI, CT, and PET/CT scans. After you have a scan, a doctor who specializes in imaging, called a radiologist, will read your scan, write a report on the results, and send the results to your doctor. Imaging tests may also include x-rays, ultrasounds, mammography, nuclear medicine scans, and more.

MRI Scan

MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan

An MRI uses powerful magnets to take detailed pictures of the inside of your body.

CT Scan

CT (computed tomography) scan

A CT scan is also called a CAT scan. It creates a 3-D picture of your body using x-rays to take pictures from different angles.

PET Scan

PET (positron emission tomography) or PET/CT scan

A PET scan uses a radioactive sugar, sometimes called a tracer, which is injected into your body, to find and measure the spread of cancer in your body. The tracer makes cancer cells look brighter than healthy cells on the pictures produced by the scanner. A PET/CT combines PET with a CT scan to show more detail to help pinpoint the location of tumors.

Example questions to ask your doctor

  • How often will I need follow-up tests after cancer treatment?
  • Which tests might be able to detect if my cancer has come back?
  • Are there any other tests I may need to help us decide the next steps for my treatment?
How often will I need follow-up tests after cancer treatment?
Which tests might be able to detect if my cancer has come back?
Are there any other tests I may need to help us decide the next steps for my treatment?    

Prepare for your scan and getting results

It’s normal to feel anxious about a scan. You may hear some people call it “scanxiety.” Here are some tips for before, during, and after your scans to help you feel prepared and to ease your scanxiety.

Before the scan

Before a scan, you may have a lot of anxious thoughts. For example, “What should I wear?” and “What’s it going to feel like?” You should receive directions from your health care team before your appointment. Read the tips below to help you feel prepared.

Have a plan to get your results

Talk to your doctor before your scan to find out how long it may take to receive the results and how you will get them. For example, some doctors may require a visit to review your results, and others may share results with you over the phone.

Call ahead to the scan location

If you have questions about what will happen during the scan, call and ask the staff at the location where you are having your scan. They’ll talk you through the procedure.

Avoid wearing metal

Metal can affect the imaging scans. In general, as you’re getting dressed, do not wear anything metal, such as jewelry, hair clips, or zippers.

Ask about eating and drinking before

Sometimes your doctor will tell you to not eat or drink for a certain amount of time before your scan. Ask your doctor if you should not eat or drink ahead of time.

During the scan

Getting prepped for your scan and being in the machine may cause additional anxiety. Use the tips below to help ease stress.

Distract yourself in the waiting room

Bring along your smartphone or tablet and a pair of headphones with you for the waiting room. Music, games, books, or magazines can help calm your nerves before the scan.

Take deep breaths

While waiting for your scan to begin, try using a relaxation technique like deep breathing:

  1. While sitting or standing, place a hand on your stomach.
  2. Breathe in through your nose while gently pushing your stomach out.
  3. Slowly breathe out through tight lips. Gently push inward and upward on your stomach to help empty your lungs.
  4. Repeat.
Think positive

Try to imagine pleasant places, peaceful thoughts, and feelings that may help take your mind off the scan.

After the scan

When you finish the scan, you may not feel like you can relax just yet. Use the tips below while you wait for your results, and when you get them back.

Spend time with loved ones

This is a good time to surround yourself with family and friends. It can be a way to lessen stress. For example, ask someone to take a walk outside or watch a funny movie.

Bring a friend or family member with you to find out the results

If someone can come with you, they can offer support, help you take notes, and remind you of the things you wanted to talk about with your health care team.

Share your concerns with your doctor

If you have any questions, share them with your doctor right away. Your results can be a lot to take in. It may help to take notes so that you can share the information with friends or family who couldn’t be at the visit with you.

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