Diagnosing Head and Neck Cancer
If a patient has symptoms that could be head and neck cancer, the doctor will do a physical exam and ask you many questions. It is important to describe how you have been feeling and any changes you may have noticed, such as pain, difficulty swallowing, mouth or throat sores, or changes in your voice. The doctor may order one or more of the following tests:
Physical Exam - An exam in which the doctor feels for swollen lymph nodes in the neck and looks down the throat with a small, long-handled mirror to check for abnormal areas.
Endoscopy - A procedure used to look at areas in the throat that cannot be seen with a mirror during the physical exam of the throat. An endoscope (a thin, lighted tube) is inserted through the nose or mouth to check the throat for anything that seems unusual. Tissue samples may be taken for biopsy. This may be done at the doctor's office, often after using numbing spray.
CT Scan (CAT Scan) - A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) - A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imaging (NMRI).
X-Rays - An x-ray of the head, neck, and organs and bones inside the chest. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.
Barium Esophagogram - An x-ray of the esophagus. The patient drinks a liquid that contains barium (a silver-white metallic compound). The liquid coats the esophagus and x-rays are taken.
Esophagoscopy - A procedure to look inside the esophagus to check for abnormal areas. An esophagoscope (a thin, lighted tube) is inserted through the mouth or nose and down the throat into the esophagus. Tissue samples may be taken for biopsy.
Bronchoscopy - A procedure to look inside the trachea and large airways in the lung for abnormal areas. A bronchoscope (a thin, lighted tube) is inserted through the nose or mouth into the trachea and lungs. Tissue samples may be taken for biopsy.
Biopsy - The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope to check for signs of cancer.
Fine needle aspiration - This type of biopsy is done with a small needle to see if you have cancer. It is often used to assess lumps in the neck.
Fiberoptic endoscopic evaluation of swallowing test (FEES) - A thin, lighted tube is inserted through your nose and down your throat so that the health care provider can watch how you swallow from inside.
Other diagnostic tests:
- PET or PET-CT scan