Head and Neck Cancer

Diagnosis

To find the cause of possible head and neck cancer 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. 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.

Biopsy is the removal of tissue for examination under a microscope. A pathologist studies the tissue to make a diagnosis. A biopsy is the only sure way to tell whether a person has cancer.

If the diagnosis is cancer, the doctor will want to learn the stage (or extent) of disease. Head and neck cancer staging is a careful attempt to find out whether the cancer has spread and, if so, to which parts of the body. To properly determine the stage of head and neck cancers surgery, x-rays and other imaging procedures, and laboratory tests may be required. Knowing the stage of the disease helps the doctor plan treatment.

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