If you meet several risk factors and are experiencing signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer, your doctor will conduct further tests to confirm a diagnosis.
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Signs & Symptoms
Depending on the location, symptoms present themselves differently. For example, throat cancer may start out as a persistent sore throat that doesn’t improve with time, while sinus cancer may present as soreness or pressure in the sinuses. In general, concerning symptoms include any of the following, especially if they don’t improve over time:
- Swelling in the throat
- Painless swelling in the neck
- Sore throat
- Red or white patches in the throat
- Bloody noses or blood in the mucous or saliva
- An inexplicable lump or bump anywhere on the face, neck, mouth or throat
- Difficulty breathing
- Difficulty swallowing, chewing or moving the muscles in the face, neck, mouth or throat
- Foul breath despite good oral hygiene
- Loose teeth
- Dentures or retainers that no longer fit
- Double vision
If your doctor discovers abnormalities during your screening, he or she may order additional diagnostic tests.
After topical anesthesia of the nose and back of the throat, a flexible fiberoptic camera is inserted through the nose and navigated to the back of the nose area (nasopharynx) and down the throat to the the larynx (voice box) for direct visualization.
Computed tomography (CT) scans use multiple X-rays at different angles to create 3D images of the body that help doctors determine the cancer’s exact location. CT scans also help doctors visualize the treatment’s progress.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a scan that uses radio waves and strong magnetic fields to create images of the inside of the body. You will need to remain very still during the procedure. Doctors use MRIs to determine the stage of the cancer and how far the cancer has spread. MRIs also help doctors visualize the treatment’s progress.
To conduct a positron emission tomography (PET) scan, the doctor injects a sugar-based radioactive tracer. The tracer couples with cancer cells and emits radioactive signals that the PET scan system reads. It turns these readings into images that doctors use to find the cancer.
A biopsy is the removal of a small amount of tissue to test for disease. To perform a biopsy, doctors usually sample the suspicious tissue with a hollow needle or a small cut in the skin. Your doctor will send the tissue samples to a laboratory where a pathologist will search for cancer cells in the samples under a microscope.
The pathologist who studied the biopsy will send a report to your doctor. This report will contain information on the type of cancer and a grade based on the how abnormal the cells look. The report will also include predictions on how likely the cancer is to grow, spread throughout the body and recur after treatment. Your doctor will use this information to craft a tailored treatment plan.