Head and Neck Cancer Tests and Diagnoses

It’s important to understand the exams and tests conducted for head and neck cancer may vary depending on the symptoms. Examination of a sample of tissue (a biopsy) under the microscope is always necessary to confirm a diagnosis of cancer.

Exams and tests that may be useful in testing and/or diagnosing for head and neck cancer include:

  • Physical examination may include visual inspection of the oral and nasal cavities, neck, throat and tongue using a small mirror and/or lights. Your 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 your 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 your 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.
  • Computed tomography (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.
  • MRI (Magnetic resonance imaging) uses a powerful magnet linked to a computer to create detailed pictures of areas inside the head and neck.
  •  Positron emission tomography (PET) scan uses sugar that is modified in a specific way so it is absorbed by cancer cells and appears as dark areas on the scan.
  • Biopsy is the removal of a piece of tissue. A pathologist studies the tissue under a microscope to make a diagnosis. A biopsy is the only sure way to tell whether a person has cancer.


If the diagnosis is cancer, your doctor will want to learn the stage (or extent) of disease. Staging is the process of determining how much cancer there is in your body, as well as where it is located. This is how your doctor learns the stage of the cancer. Doctors need to know the amount of cancer and where it is located in the body in order to choose the best possible treatment for that particular person.

Stages of head and neck cancer are:

  • Stage I cancers are small, localized and usually curable.
  • Stage II and III cancers typically are locally advanced and/or have spread to local lymph nodes.
  • Stage IV cancers usually are metastatic (have spread to distant parts of the body) and generally are considered inoperable.