Head and Neck Cancer - Diagnosis

Please describe the exams and tests that led to a diagnosis of head or neck cancer.

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How are head and neck cancers diagnosed?

To find the cause of symptoms, a doctor evaluates a person's medical history, performs a physical examination, and orders diagnostic tests. The exams and tests conducted may vary depending on the symptoms. A biopsy may be recommended and performed based upon the findings of the earlier tests. A biopsu is a limited surgical procedure which remeoves a small piece of tissue. Examination of a sample of tissue under the microscope is always necessary to make a diagnosis of cancer.

Some exams and tests that may be useful are described below:

  • Physical examination may include visual inspection of the oral and nasal cavities, neck, throat, and tongue using a small mirror and/or lights. The doctor may also feel for lumps on the neck, lips, gums, and cheeks.
  • Endoscopy is the use of a thin, lighted tube called an endoscope to examine areas inside the body. The type of endoscope the doctor uses depends on the area being examined. For example, a laryngoscope is inserted through the mouth to view the larynx; an esophagoscope is inserted through the mouth to examine the esophagus; and a nasopharyngoscope is inserted through the nose so the doctor can see the nasal cavity and nasopharynx.
  • Laboratory tests examine samples of blood, urine, or other substances from the body.
  • X-rays create images of areas inside the head and neck on film.
  • CT (or CAT) scan is a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the head and neck created by a computer linked to an X-ray machine.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (or MRI) uses a powerful magnet linked to a computer to create detailed pictures of areas inside the head and neck.
  • PET scan uses sugar that is modified in a specific way so it is absorbed by cancer calls and appears as dark areas on the scan.

If the diagnosis is cancer, the doctor will want to learn the stage (or extent) of disease. Staging is a careful attempt to find out whether the cancer has spread and, if so, to which parts of the body. Staging may involve an examination under anesthesia (in the operating room), X-rays and other imaging procedures, and laboratory tests. Knowing the stage of the disease helps the doctor plan treatment.

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