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How do scans detect bone cancer?

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Quick Answer

Imaging tests performed on the bones, including X-rays, computed tomography scans, magnetic resonance imaging scans, radionuclide bone scans and positron emission tomography scans, show abnormal bone growth and allow a doctor to pinpoint where in the body the cancer is, notes the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Though doctors can sometimes tell if the bone growth is cancerous from scans, a biopsy is the only method that can confirm cancer, states the American Cancer Society.

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Any cancerous growth may show up as a ragged pattern or as a hole in the bone instead of solid on an X-ray, explains the American Cancer Society. A computed tomography scan rotates around the patient, taking multiple cross-sectional photos of a part of the body that it later compiles into an image. CT scans help determine the staging of cancer, as they can often tell if the cancer spread from the bones to the liver, lymph nodes or other parts of the body.

A magnetic resonance imaging scan involves bombarding the patient with radio waves, which are absorbed and re-emitted by the tissue in the body, informs the American Cancer Society. Tissue and certain diseases re-emit the radio waves in unique patterns, allowing the machine to translate these patterns and create a detailed image of the body. An MRI often helps provide an outline of a bone tumor.

A radionuclide bone scan helps determine if the cancer spread to other bones of the body, explains the American Cancer Society. A positron emission tomography scan detects radioactivity in the body, after a doctor introduces radioactive glucose into the patient. Cancer cells have a high rate of metabolism and therefore take in much of the radioactive glucose, making it easy for a PET scan to find the cancer cells.

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