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Diagnostic Imaging: Getting a Look into Cancer

The fight against cancer has been aided by advances in diagnostic imaging. These new technologies, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computerized tomography (CT), have given doctors and health care providers additional insights into cancer. ProMedica has the expertise in the use of the technologies to aid in your cancer care.

We understand it can be intimidating to undergo diagnostic screenings. Because we rely on advanced technologies in cancer care, their use may at first seem complex and technical. However, it is easy to understand the ways these tests work once you know the terminology.

We want you to feel comfortable in your understanding of diagnostic procedures, so we have described the most common diagnostic equipment used in cancer care. Your health care providers will use these tests to identify diseases and their location in the body. Each test provides different information about your body to your doctor, so you may be asked to have more than one of these tests.

Most of these services are available at ProMedica’s Hickman Cancer Center at ProMedica Bixby Hospital. Diagnostic imaging also is available at other ProMedica facilities, so check the closest ProMedica site to you for these services. If you have questions about where you can get any of these diagnostic screenings, please use our online contact form. You can also call your doctor or view maps and directions to the facility nearest you.

Diagnostic Resources

Bone Scan (Nuclear Medicine)

Your physician might order a bone scan to see if disease has entered the bones. A bone scan is similar to an X-ray because it uses radiation to look at the condition of your bones. However, in order for the bone scan to provide a detailed look, you must take a radionuclide (radioactive material) internally. Usually, the radionuclide is injected. The radionuclide travels through your blood and settles in areas where the bone is building or breaking down. If the scan shows that your bones are building or breaking down, it could indicate cancer. However, any significant physical changes to the bones (for example, from arthritis or a recent bone fracture) show up on a bone scan as well. Your healthcare provider will explain the results of your bone scan to you.

Computerized Tomography (CT) Scan

A CT scan uses low-energy X-rays and computers to create a cross-sectional image of your body. It provides much more information than a basic X-ray. The imaging machine has a large circular opening. When you get a CT scan, you lie on a long table that slides into the circular opening in the imaging machine. The scanner rotates around you, emitting X-rays and a buzzing noise. The CT scan does not cause any physical pain, and it takes only a few minutes for the actual imaging to be completed. The entire scanning session usually takes 20-30 minutes, though times can vary. Because organs and tissues do not show up as clearly as bones do on an X-ray, sometimes the doctor injects something called a contrast agent prior to your CT scan. The contrast agent is a fluid that helps make the image clearer for the doctor.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

The main difference between an MRI and an X-ray, CT scan or PET scan is that an MRI machine creates an image of the body using a large magnet instead of using radiation. Other than that significant difference, the scanning process is similar to that of a CT scan to the patient. You lie on a table that slides into the MRI machine. The MRI machine looks like a large tube. You will not feel the magnetic field, but you will hear some noise during the scan. The imaging may take a bit of time, but you will only spend a few minutes at a time being scanned. In between scans, you can communicate back and forth with the technician. She or he will make sure you are comfortable during the scan.

Positron Emission Tomography (PET/CT) Scan

A PET scan uses a particular type of radiotracer that takes about an hour to absorb into your body (usually via injection). After the radiotracer is in your body, it sends a strong signal out from areas of your body that may be abnormal. The actual imaging in a PET scan is typically done in conjunction with an MRI or CT scan. The PET scan is just another level of testing that helps make your MRI or CT scan clearer and more precise so that your doctor can get the best image possible.


An ultrasound machine uses high-frequency sound waves and a computer to create pictures of your body. A special sound-conducting gel is put on the skin where you are to be scanned. Then, the technologist guides a sensor wand across the skin that sends the sound waves throughout the area. The images appear on a TV screen and are recorded.

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