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Gastrointestinal Cancer Diagnosis

Gastrointestinal cancers such as colon and pancreatic cancer affect people in many different ways. An accurate biopsy and well-informed diagnosis are critical first steps toward the right treatment. At the Abramson Cancer Center, our experienced GI cancer specialists use advanced diagnostic tools to uncover key details about GI cancers.

GI Cancer Diagnosis: The Penn Medicine Advantage

The skilled experts at Penn Medicine provide unmatched diagnostic expertise that allows us to customize a treatment plan to your needs.

At the Abramson Cancer Center, you can expect:

  • Comprehensive diagnostic tools: Our doctors draw from an arsenal of the latest tests to diagnose all types of gastrointestinal cancers. We routinely identify rare and difficult-to-detect cancers using the least invasive methods possible.
  • GI cancer experts: Our multidisciplinary team includes renowned gastroenterologists, pathologists (diagnosis experts) and radiologists (imaging doctors) who specialize in GI cancers and work together. The result is a detailed diagnosis based on a wealth of expertise. Learn more about our GI cancer specialists.
  • Genetic testing and counseling: Some GI cancers (including pancreatic, colon and stomach cancers) have a genetic link. Our Gastrointestinal Cancer Genetics Program helps patients and their families personalize a screening plan to manage their cancer risk.
  • Promising research: Penn is home to one of the nation’s largest GI cancer research programs. Our team pursues advancements in all avenues of GI cancer care, including efforts focused on diagnosing pancreatic and other hard-to-detect cancers at earlier and more curable stages. Learn more about GI cancer research.
  • Trusted care near you: Penn’s vast network ensures you’re never far from our GI cancer expertise. You can access comprehensive GI cancer screening and diagnostic services at all Abramson Cancer Center locations.

How We Diagnose GI Cancers

At Penn, our doctors are leading experts in gastrointestinal cancer care. They have many years of experience diagnosing the full spectrum of GI cancer types, including colon, rectal, pancreatic, esophageal, liver and stomach cancers.

Your doctor may recommend a combination of tests, based on your symptoms and health history:

  • Imaging tests: Advanced imaging tests, such as CT, MRI or PET scans, capture fine details of internal organs. These pictures show a tumor’s exact location and help doctors confirm or rule out cancer. Your doctor may also recommend imaging tests to determine whether or where cancer cells have spread.
  • Blood tests: Cancer cells make substances called tumor markers. Blood tests that measure tumor markers can help diagnose GI cancer. Blood tests can also give doctors a better understanding of your health or organ function, which provide clues to whether cancer has spread.
  • Barium swallow: For this radiology test, you drink a special liquid and then have X-rays. The barium in the liquid helps doctors more clearly see the upper part of the digestive tract on the X-rays.
  • Endoscopy: During an endoscopic procedure, a doctor guides a thin, bendable tube with a camera at its tip down your throat. This procedure can help our team evaluate the upper digestive tract, including the esophagus and stomach. Doctors may remove tissue to analyze cells for signs of cancer at the same time.
  • Colonoscopy: A doctor carefully guides a flexible instrument attached to a camera (colonoscope) inside the rectum. Doctors may perform this procedure to evaluate the lower digestive organs, such as the colon and rectum. If your doctor sees an area of concern, they can remove abnormal tissue or polyps during the procedure. Learn more about colonoscopy.
  • Endoscopic ultrasound (EUS): An endoscopic ultrasound is a minimally invasive procedure that uses sound waves to take pictures of internal organs, such as the digestive tract and pancreas.
  • Biopsy: During this procedure, a gastroenterologist or surgeon uses an instrument called an endoscope to remove a small sample of tissue from the affected area. Our dedicated GI cancer pathologists then look for unique patterns of cancer cells under a microscope.

Precision Medicine: How We Use Genomic Tests for Cancer

At Penn’s Center for Personalized Diagnostics, subspecialized pathologists perform genomic testing on tumor tissue to analyze cancer’s DNA. These specialized tests identify specific genetic and molecular traits of cancer cells.

Your oncologist and care team use these details to personalize treatments for you such as targeted therapies that attack a specific part of the cancer cell. They can also recommend treatments that may cause fewer side effects. Learn more about genomic testing and the Center for Personalized Diagnostics.

Request an Appointment

Call 215-615-5858 to speak with one of our GI cancer experts. You can also request an appointment using our online form.