Head and Neck Cancer Tests, Diagnosis, Stages and Prognosis

If you’ve been diagnosed with head and neck cancer, Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center is here for you and your family. We provide comprehensive cancer care, supporting every aspect of your wellbeing. Our multidisciplinary team of experts works with you to achieve the best outcome possible.

Are There Screening Tests for Head and Neck Cancer?

With some cancers, doctors use screening tests, such as mammograms for breast cancer to look for cancer before a person has any symptoms. Currently, there are no standard screening tests for head and neck cancers, but doctors recommend you get an annual physical of your head, neck and throat, as well as an annual dental exam.

For high-risk patients, such as those who previously have had head and neck cancer, chest x-rays and more frequent physical exams may be recommended.

What Tests Are Used to Diagnose Head and Neck Cancer?

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Head and Neck Cancer Diagnostic Tests

To diagnose head and neck cancer, your doctor will recommend any combination of the following tests:

  • Physical exam
  • Blood and urine testing
  • Endoscopy – Allows your doctor to see inside your body using a thin, flexible tube inserted into your mouth or nose
  • Biopsy – Removal of a small amount of tissue for analysis
  • Molecular (genetic) testing of the tumor
  • Image testing – Allows your doctor to take pictures of the inside of your body and evaluate tumor location, size and stage
    • X-ray/barium swallow
    • Panoramic radiograph (Panorex) – A rotating x-ray of the upper and lower jawbones.
    • Ultrasound
    • Computed tomography (CT) scan
    • 磁共振成像(MRI)
    • Bone scan
    • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan

What Is the Prognosis for Head and Neck Cancer?

The prognosis is good for patients diagnosed early with head and neck cancer. Unfortunately, patients often are not diagnosed until the disease has advanced, becoming incurable or requiring aggressive treatment. About 66% of head and neck cancers are found in stages III and IV.

Head and Neck Cancer Staging

Your Banner MD Anderson head and neck cancer doctor will explain to you what your stage means. If you have questions or something is unclear, ask us. We’re here to provide you with as much information as you need to feel comfortable and make informed health care decisions.

Doctors use a staging system to help describe the size, location and spread of cancer. Many people do not show symptoms in early stages of head and neck cancer, leading to diagnosis in later, more advanced stages and reducing treatment effectiveness.

  • Stage 0:Abnormal cells in the lining of the affected area have the potential to become cancer.
  • Stage I (1):A very early stage of cancer when the tumor is small and has not reached the lymph nodes.
  • Stage II (2):The tumor has grown larger than stage I, but still has not reached the lymph nodes.
  • Stage III (3):The tumor is larger than stage II or has spread to a nearby lymph node.
  • Stage IV (4):The tumor has spread to multiple lymph nodes and/or distant parts of the body, like the lungs.