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Urethral Cancer: Diagnosis

How is urethral cancer diagnosed?

If your healthcare provider thinks you might have urethral cancer, you will need tests to be sure. Diagnosing urethral cancer starts with your healthcare provider asking you questions. You'll be asked about your health history, your symptoms, risk factors, and your family history of disease. Your healthcare provider will also do a physical exam. This may include a rectal exam and, in women, a gynecological exam to help find out if the cancer has spread to the vulva, vagina, uterus, or ovaries.

What tests might I need to find out if I have urethral cancer?

You may have one or more of these tests used to diagnose urethral cancer:

  • Blood and urine tests

  • Cystoscopy

  • CT scan

  • Biopsy

Laboratory tests

Your healthcare provider may do tests to check your blood cell counts and get an idea of how well your organs are working. These can include your liver and kidneys. Blood tests can give an idea of your overall health. 

Your healthcare provider will collect your urine to see if there are cancer cells in it. This is called urine cytology.

Cystoscopy

In a cystoscopy, a thin, lighted tube is put into your urethra to look at the inside lining of the urethra and your bladder.

Your healthcare provider can often find the exact place and size of the tumor using this test.

CT scan

A CT scan uses a series of X-rays and a computer to make detailed pictures of the inside of your body. During the test, you lie still on a table as it slides into the ring-shaped CT scanner. A CT scan doesn't hurt. You may be asked to hold your breath one or more times during the scan.

You might be asked to drink a contrast dye before the scan. Or the dye may be put right onto your blood through a vein. The dye helps show certain parts of your body more clearly. It will pass through your body and exit through your bowel movements. When the dye is injected into your blood, you may have a warm feeling from your chest to your groin.

This test can show tumors and other changes in and around your urethra. It can also help show whether the tumor has spread to nearby organs or lymph nodes in your pelvis or belly (abdomen).

Biopsy

If your healthcare provider thinks you have cancer, he or she may take a tiny piece of tissue (called a sample) from that part of the urethra. This is called a biopsy. The sample might be taken out through the same tube used to do a cystoscopy. A pathologist will look at it under a microscope to see if there are cancer cells in it. A pathologist is a healthcare provider who specializes in looking for and testing for cancer cells in biopsy tissue.

Getting your test results 

When your healthcare provider has the results of your biopsy and other tests, he or she will contact you. Your provider will talk with you about other tests you may need if urethral cancer is found. Make sure you understand the results and what follow-up you need.

What tests might I need after being diagnosed?

If you have urethral cancer, you’ll need more tests to learn more about the cancer. These tests can help show if the cancer has grown into nearby areas or spread to other parts of your body. The test results help your healthcare providers decide the best ways to treat the cancer. If you have any questions about these or other tests, be sure to talk with your healthcare team.

Imaging tests

MRI

An MRI scan is a test that uses magnets and radio waves to take pictures of the inside of your body, much like a CT scan. MRI scans do not use X-rays. During the test, you’ll lie still on a table as it passes into a long, narrow scanner tube. If you have problems being in small spaces, your healthcare provider may give you a sedative before having this test.

A dye may be put into your blood through a vein to get better pictures. Like a CT scan, an MRI scan can be used to look for the spread of cancer to other organs in your pelvis.

Ultrasound

This test uses sound waves to look for problems in your abdominal organs (the organs in your belly). These include your liver, spleen, kidneys, uterus, and ovaries. The sound waves bounce off body parts and send back an image, like sonar on a submarine. A computer then uses the signals sent back by the sound waves to create an image of the inside of your body. In women, a special form of ultrasound (transvaginal ultrasound) can be helpful to see if cancer has spread to the uterus, vagina, or other nearby organs.

Urethrography

This test is a series of X-rays taken after a dye has been put into your urethra and bladder. The dye shows up on the X-rays as it fills these areas. It can help find blockages and tumors on the linings of your urethra and bladder.

Chest X-ray

You may have a chest X-ray to see if the cancer has spread to your lungs or the lymph nodes in your chest.

Working with your healthcare provider

Your healthcare provider will talk with you about which tests you'll have. Make sure to get ready for the tests as instructed. Ask questions and talk about any concerns you have.

Online Medical Reviewer: Kimberly Stump-Sutliff RN MSN AOCNS
Online Medical Reviewer: Lu Cunningham
Online Medical Reviewer: Marc Greenstein MD
Date Last Reviewed: 3/1/2019
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