Learn about cancer, how it is detected and diagnosed at Lehigh Valley Topper Cancer Institute.

The term “cancer” refers to a group of diseases in which cells grow uncontrollably and spread throughout the body. Many people are cancer survivors or have a family member or friend who has been affected. It’s important to have a basic understanding of cancer.

Detecting cancer early can affect your health in the future. If cancer is found, a doctor will determine what type it is and how fast it is growing. The doctor also will determine whether cancer cells have invaded nearby healthy tissue or spread (metastasized) to other parts of your body. In some cases, finding cancer early may lead to better outcomes. For this reason, improving methods for early detection is a high priority for cancer researchers.

Cancer does not always have symptoms, so don’t wait to feel pain or notice changes – like a lump in the breast or unusual bleeding or discharge – before going to the doctor for screening tests. Cancer usually requires a number of cell mutations to develop, so your risk increases as you get older because there’s been more time for mutations to accumulate. Screening methods are designed to check for cancer in people with no symptoms.

Tumor grading and staging

Microscopic examination of the cells provides your doctor with information about the likely behavior of a tumor and its responsiveness to treatment. Cancers with highly abnormal cells and large numbers of dividing cells tend to grow more quickly, spread to other organs more frequently and may be less responsive to therapy than cancers whose cells look more normal. Based on these differences in the microscopic appearance of the cells, doctors assign a numerical “grade” to most cancers. A low number grade (grade I or II) refers to cancers with fewer cell abnormalities than those with higher numbers (grade III or IV).

After cancer has been diagnosed, doctors will assign a “stage” (usually between 0 and 4) based on the tumor’s size, if the cancer cells have spread to nearby (regional) lymph nodes and if the cancer has spread to other regions of the body. Your chances for survival are better when cancer is detected at a lower stage number.

Genetic testing for cancer risk

If you have a family history of cancer or other risk factors, genetic counseling could help you manage your risk and recommend screenings. Laboratory tests can determine whether you carry some of the genetic alterations that can increase your risk for developing certain cancers. However, the information obtained from genetic tests is often complex and difficult to interpret. Lehigh Valley Topper Cancer Institute has a team of genetic counselors with the Gregory and Lorraine Harper Cancer Risk and Genetic Assessment Program to help you and support your providers.

When you choose the Lehigh Valley Topper Cancer Institute for your cancer care, you will benefit from our advanced resources to fight your cancer. You can be confident in knowing you have access to hundreds of lifesaving and breakthrough clinical trials through the Cancer Institute’s membership in the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Alliance and other clinical relationships.