How Doctors Diagnose Head and Neck Cancer

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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When it comes to your health, the road to recovery begins with a diagnosis. If you are experiencing troublesome symptoms, speak with your doctor. If your symptoms suggest you might have head or neck cancer, your doctor will order certain tests to help diagnose it or rule it out.

Diagnosing Head and Neck Cancer

Fortunately, most head and neck malignancies can be discovered as part of a comprehensive examination. Many supplemental tests are available to help doctors diagnose head and neck cancer, but not everyone will undergo the same tests. The tests you have will depend on your age, general health, symptoms, and the type of cancer your doctor suspects. Your doctor might use some of these tests to confirm earlier test results or evaluate whether a treatment has been effective:

  • Biopsy: Your doctor will remove a small amount of tissue from the affected area and examine it for cancer cells. For many types of cancer, a biopsy is the only way to make a conclusive diagnosis. However, it is not always possible to biopsy all tumors, because of the location or other reasons. If this is the case, doctors may rely on other tests to diagnose head and neck cancer.

  • Bone scan: During a bone scan, you will receive an injection of a radioactive chemical compound that will reveal possible cancer sites. Your doctor may use this test for an initial diagnosis or to determine whether cancer has spread.

  • CT or CAT scan: Called a computed tomography scan, this test uses X-rays to create a three-dimensional image of the inside of your head and neck to check for tumors.

  • Endoscopy: A doctor can insert a small tube through the nose to look inside your head and neck to check for abnormalities.

  • HPV (human papillomavirus) infection test: Certain types of HPV infections increase the risk of head and neck cancer, so your doctor will want to check for this condition.

  • MRI: Magnetic resonance imaging creates two-dimensional or three-dimensional pictures of the inside of your head and neck using magnetic fields.

  • PET scan: Called a positron emission tomography scan, this test uses an injected radioactive substance to create pictures of your internal organs and tissues. This test can locate any abnormalities. It can also help a doctor stage the cancer, evaluate whether a treatment has been effective, and see whether cancer has reappeared after successful treatment.

  • Physical exam: Your doctor will check your head, neck and face, including your nose and mouth, for lumps or anything out of the ordinary. Your doctor might also order standard blood and urine tests at this time.

  • Ultrasound: This is a way of creating pictures of your internal organs using sound waves.

  • X-ray: Your doctor might order X-rays to view two-dimensional pictures of the inside of your head and neck. For an X-ray, you might also drink a liquid containing barium—called a barium swallow—to make any abnormalities easier to locate.

Next Steps

If your doctor confirms you have head or neck cancer, he or she will determine the precise stage of the cancer. This information will help you and your doctor make a treatment plan. Your treatment options will take into account your age and general health, as well as where the cancer is and how much it has spread, if at all. Treatments can include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery. Sometimes a doctor will recommend a combination of treatments.

If the cancer is due to HPV infection, your doctor will take that into account in developing a course of action because it can affect which treatments will be most effective.

It’s crucial to catch head and neck cancer as early as possible for the best chance of recovery. In the early stages, head and neck cancer is often curable. Be sure to talk with your doctor about any signs and symptoms you have experienced—especially pain or swelling that won’t go away. If your doctor suspects cancer, these diagnostic tests will help determine your next steps.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Mar 20
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

  1. Head and Neck Cancer. Radiological Society of North America. http://www.radiologyinfo.org/en/info.cfm?pg=head-neck-cancer

  2. Head and Neck Cancer – Diagnosis. American Society of Clinical Oncology. http://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/head-and-neck-cancer/diagnosis

  3. Head and Neck Cancers. National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/head-neck-fact-sheet