Head and Neck Cancer - Diagnosis

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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.

Return to Head and Neck Cancer

See what others are saying

Comment from: Jaxwoman, 65-74 Male (Caregiver) Published: April 28

My husband's diagnosis started to evolve when he had a stroke back in February of 2014. He was blocked on both sides of his neck at 90 and 95 percent. After both endarterectomies from March 2014 until present, 4/2015 he experienced a sore throat. The general physician said it could be strep or tonsillitis since he still has both his tonsils. He was given antibiotics. He started to notice a burning sensation in 2/2015 when eating foods with salt. Started to choke and cough more often when eating meals. Not severe, but annoying. He went to an ENT who took biopsy and discovered squamous cell carcinoma on his tonsil. He had surgery to take off the tonsil tumor and they discovered 2 more on his upper palate, size between 2 and 3 mm. One next to his uvula as seen on screen inhibits eating correctly and accounts for the choking and coughing when eating. Now at 4/26 he has had first week of radiation therapy and last one will be on June 1, 2015. He is starting to lose taste for food, and sleeps all the time. He is diabetic, and has a pacemaker. Caution with radiation treatments is required because of the pacemaker and location of treatments in relation to the pacemaker. As caregiver, health surrogate and with legal durable power of attorney I feel this testimony may aid others in getting down to the bottom of a sore throat before it gets out of hand. Keep asking for more answers if a sore throat does not go away. He did not question the sore throat after the endarterectomies because one of the side effects could be a sore throat for life, but when it started to sting and burn after eating salty foods he knew there was something in there amiss. It was his decision to see an ENT and their doing a biopsy to see what is going on provided the proper channels to get the ball rolling on fighting cancer. Do not delay, and stay informed and ask questions.

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Comment from: trisha2520, 55-64 Female (Patient) Published: May 01

I went to an ear, nose and throat specialist and he used a camera that went down through my nose and said 75 percent chance of laryngeal cancer. He wanted to do a biopsy which he did the next week under a general anesthesia. It came back as stage II laryngeal cancer, inoperable because it was too close to the vocal cords unless they took the vocal cords. I chose radiation and they did a PET scan to see if it had spread to the lymph nodes. It had spread to the lymph nodes which took it to stage III. That meant the treatment plan changes to radiation and chemotherapy also.

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