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Diagnostic Tests

An early and accurate diagnosis is one of the first steps toward successful treatment. Inova Comprehensive Cancer and Research Institute offers a full range of diagnostic options to help diagnose cancer. These tests are also essential for "staging," a process of tests performed prior to treatment that determines how advanced the cancer has become.


Diagnostic imaging produces pictures of the inside of the body using the latest in imaging technology. Exams include X-ray, ultrasound, CT, MRI, breast MRI, nuclear medicine and PET/CT.



A lighted tube called an endoscope can check internal organs for signs of cancer. Endoscopy evaluates the stomach, colonoscopy evaluates the bowel and bronchoscopy evaluates the lungs. Inova Comprehensive Cancer and Research Institute offers a complete range of endoscopic services for accurate diagnoses. Endoscopic ultrasound is a highly innovative, nonsurgical and precise technique that enables physicians to evaluate tumors difficult to find by standard methods and to simultaneously view and biopsy tissues. The procedure is used to evaluate, diagnose and stage cancers, including esophageal, biliary, colorectal, gastric and pancreatic cancers. The outpatient procedure does not require general anesthesia and is well-tolerated by patients.

Learn more about endoscopic procedures at Inova hospitals arrow

Lab tests

Blood and urine tests provide important information about many kinds of cancer. Inova Comprehensive Cancer and Research Institute laboratory facilities are staffed by pathologists (a doctor that examines body tissues, cells and fluids for signs of disease) with expertise in cancer diagnosis.


Biopsy is a procedure that removes all or part of a suspicious growth. This growth is examined by a pathologist or other laboratory technician to help confirm or rule out a cancer diagnosis. If cancer is found, the biopsied tissue identifies the type of cancer and whether it is likely to grow quickly or slowly. Inova has the technology and expertise to perform the least invasive test that provides the most accurate, complete information. Biopsy procedures include needle biopsy and stereotactic core breast biopsy.


When cancer is diagnosed, physicians must determine the stage or extent of the disease so they can prescribe the most effective treatment. Sometimes lymph nodes are removed to determine if the cancer has spread.

Sentinel node mapping is a sophisticated procedure that indicates which lymph nodes are most likely to be affected by the cancer, sparing the other nodes. Sentinel node mapping is commonly used for breast cancer staging.

Sentinel node mapping for breast cancer staging – helping to preserve lymph nodes 
Traditionally patients diagnosed with breast cancer undergo surgery to remove all the lymph nodes under the arm to determine if the cancer has spread beyond the breast and what treatment is most appropriate. Removing all the lymph nodes can result in long-term complications and discomfort for the patient, including lymphedema (a condition where excess lymph fluid collects in tissues and causes swelling). With sentinel node mapping, only the sentinel node (the first lymph node to which breast cancer is likely to spread) is removed rather than all the lymph nodes. In order to identify the sentinel node, the doctors inject either a blue dye or a relatively non-toxic radioactive substance and see which lymph node it reaches first. This lymph node is the sentinel node, and is surgically removed. Sentinel node mapping is available at Inova Alexandria, Inova Fair Oaks and Inova Fairfax Hospital Cancer Centers.

Refer to the Inova Breast Care Institute web site for comprehensive information about Inova's breast cancer services arrow