Head and neck cancer diagnosis

To find a problem in the head and neck area, an ear, nose and throat specialist will evaluate your medical history, perform a physical exam and order diagnostic tests. The exams and tests may vary depending on your symptoms. Examination of a sample of tissue under a microscope is always necessary to confirm a diagnosis of cancer.

If the diagnosis is cancer, the next step is to determine the stage (or extent) of disease. Staging is a careful attempt to find out whether the cancer has spread and, if so, to which parts of the body. Staging may involve laboratory tests, an examination under anesthesia, X-rays and other imaging procedures. Knowing the stage of the disease will help your oncologist plan your customized treatment.

What are the signs and symptoms of head and neck cancers?

It is important to check with a doctor if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • a lump or a sore that does not heal
  • a sore throat that does not go away
  • difficulty swallowing
  • a change or hoarseness in the voice

These symptoms may also be caused by other, less serious conditions.

Symptoms that may affect specific areas of the head and neck include the following:

Oral cavity: A white or red patch on the gums, the tongue or the lining of the mouth; a swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable; and unusual bleeding or pain in the mouth.

Pharynx: Trouble breathing or speaking; pain when swallowing; pain in the neck or the throat that does not go away; frequent headaches, pain or ringing in the ears, or trouble hearing.

Larynx: Pain when swallowing or ear pain; hoarse voice

Paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity: Sinuses that are blocked and do not clear; chronic sinus infections that do not respond to treatment with antibiotics; bleeding through the nose; frequent headaches, swelling or other trouble with the eyes; pain in the upper teeth; or problems with dentures.

Salivary glands: Swelling under the chin or around the jawbone; numbness or paralysis of the muscles in the face; or pain in the face, the chin, or the neck that does not go away.