Head and Neck Cancer: Tests


Test to determine head and neck cancer include:

Physical Examination

During a physical examination, the doctor feels for any lumps on the neck, lips, gums and cheeks. The doctor will also inspect the nose, mouth, throat and tongue for abnormalities, often using a light and a mirror for a clearer view. Blood and urine tests may be performed to help diagnose cancer.


A thin, flexible tube with an attached light and view lens is inserted through the mouth or nose to examine the head and neck areas. The examination has different names depending on the area of the body that is examined, such as laryngoscopy (larynx), pharyngoscopy (pharynx) or a nasopharyngoscopy (nasopharynx). It is performed using an anesthetic spray or general anesthesia to make the patient more comfortable. If tissue looks suspicious, the doctor will take a biopsy.

Fine Needle Aspiration

Cells are withdrawn using a thin needle inserted into the tumor. The cells are examined under a microscope for cancer cells (called cytologic examination).


A picture is taken of areas inside the body to help the doctor identify the presence of a tumor. A barium swallow may be required for identifying abnormalities along the swallowing passage. A special type of barium swallow called a modified barium swallow may be needed to evaluate difficulties. A dentist may also take x-rays of the teeth and mandible and maxilla, including a panorex (panoramic view). Signs of cancer may be followed up with a computed tomography (CT) scan.

CT Scan

A CT scan creates a three-dimensional picture of the inside of the body with an x-ray machine. A computer then combines these images into a detailed, cross-sectional view that shows any abnormalities for tumors.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

An MRI uses magnetic fields, not x-rays, to produce detailed images of the body, especially images of soft tissue, such as the tonsils and base of the tongue.


In this test, a video image of the inside of the body is produced using sound waves. This test can detect the spread of cancer to the liver, or to the lymph nodes in the neck (cervical lymph nodes).


This is a rotating, or panoramic, x-ray of the upper and lower jawbones to detect cancer, or to evaluate teeth before radiation therapy or chemotherapy.

Radionuclide Bone Scan

This procedure uses small amounts of radioactive material to determine whether the cancer has spread to the bones.

Positron Emission Tomography (PET) Scan

In a PET scan, radioactive sugar molecules are injected into the body. Cancer cells absorb sugar more quickly than normal cells, so they light up on the PET scan. PET scans are often used to complement information gathered from CT scan, MRI and physical examination.