Being diagnosed with cancer as an older person
Some people experience symptoms and begin by seeing their GP. Or you may have attended a cancer screening programme and the doctor may have some concerns about the results.
How cancer is diagnosed
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If your GP thinks that you have symptoms that may be caused by cancer, they will examine you and refer you to a cancer specialist at the hospital for tests. At the hospital, the doctor will take your medical history and do a physical examination.
You may have x-rays, scans or blood tests taken. Your doctor may need to take a sample of the lump or abnormal area - this is known as a biopsy. The biopsy sample is then examined so that the doctors can see if there are cancer cells, and if so, what type they are.
Scans are used to build up detailed images of the inside of your body. They can help doctors see what might be wrong. Scans can measure the size of the cancer and whether it has spread to other tissues or nearby lymph nodes (glands). This process is called ‘staging’. Once they know the type and stage of the cancer, the doctors can discuss with you how best to treat it.
A cancer diagnosis is a devastating experience for most people. Many people feel shocked, angry, sad, numb and unable to believe what is happening. Some people have said that once they were told they had cancer, they didn’t hear the rest of the conversation at all.
You may find that you can only take in small amounts of information at a time and that you have to keep asking the same questions again, or need to be told the same bits of information repeatedly. This is a common reaction to shock. Some people find that they need help to deal with their feelings and emotions.
There are many ways of coping with the emotions and feelings that cancer can cause. Some of these are discussed in our section on the emotional effects of cancer. You can also call our cancer support specialists.
Questions about being diagnosed
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You can download this table of questions you may have about being diagnosed with cancer [PDF, 114kb]. The table also suggests who may be able to answer each question.
Dr David Plume explains what happens if your GP thinks you might have some of the symptoms of cancer.