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Diagnosis of Head and Neck Cancers

How Is Head and Neck Cancer Diagnosed?

Timely screening and detection can significantly reduce deaths from head and neck cancers, which at early stages have a cure rate as high as 90 percent. Diagnosis and treatment vary with the type and location of the cancer. However, most diagnostic work-ups will include the following steps:

Physical Exam

Your physician will ask you a series of questions and is likely to do a physical exam. The physical exam will including examining any specific areas of concern, especially as they relate to the reason for your visit to the office.


Any suspicious mass of tissue or tumor is subject to a biopsy, or removal of cells from the mass. This is the only technique that can confirm the presence of cancer cells. The doctor will use a general or local anesthetic depending on the location of the mass, and then remove a sample of tissue to send to the lab. The sample is sent to a pathologist, a physician who is an expert at identifying diseased cells in tissue samples. Very often, a few stiches are used to help the area heal, and tenderness is felt for a short period of time.

Imaging Studies Head and Neck Cancer

In addition to laboratory tests of blood and urine, the diagnosis may involve imaging studies such as barium swallow x-ray, CAT (computed axial tomography) of MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans, or PET (positron emission tomography) scan, in which cancer cells become visible after absorbing treated sugar.

Based on these findings, patients may also meet with other BMC experts in a variety of specialties, including head and neck surgical oncology; neurosurgery; ophthalmology; pathology; radiology; dentistry, oral surgery, and prosthetics; speech and swallow rehabilitation; audiology; gastrointestinal surgery and nutrition; medical and radiation oncology; vascular surgery; and microvascular, reconstructive, and plastic surgery.

The results of these consultations and procedures are reviewed in a weekly multidisciplinary Head and Neck Tumor Board meeting. Each patient receives a comprehensive, individualized care plan, designed to meet his or her specific needs. Following this review, the patient’s BMC physician will discuss the recommendations of the Head and Neck Tumor Board with the patient and his or her family, and together they will develop a treatment plan that meets the patient’s specific needs.