Diagnosing head and neck cancer

Head and neck cancer is relatively uncommon. It makes up about three percent of all cancers in the U.S.

It's important to see your primary care or ENT doctor right away if you have unusual symptoms that could be a sign of head or neck cancer. These include:

  • A lump in your neck

  • Red or white patches on your gums

  • Bleeding in your mouth

  • Painful swallowing

  • Swelling in your jaw

  • Chronic sinus infections that don't go away, even after antibiotic treatment

The sooner you are diagnosed, the more quickly you can start treatment.

Reducing your risk of head and neck cancer

Even though head and neck cancer is not fully preventable, there are steps you can take to significantly reduce your risk. These include:

  • Quitting smoking or chewing tobacco

  • Limiting (or stopping) alcohol use

  • Taking steps to avoid oral HPV infection

State-of-the-art diagnostic tools for head and neck cancer

Our cancer specialists use many tools to diagnose head and neck cancer. These tests include:

  • A thorough physical examination—your primary care doctor or an ears, nose and throat (ENT) specialist may carefully examine your mouth, neck or head. This often helps them determine which tests to order next.

  • Biopsy—a test that takes a sample of abnormal tissue, so your doctor can look at it under a microscope.

  • Endoscopy a test that helps your doctor look inside your head and neck using a tiny camera attached to a thin, flexible tube (endoscope). Depending on what part of the head and neck your doctor needs to see, this test may have other names including laryngoscopy and nasopharyngoscopy.

  • Imaging tests—radiology exams such as [ultrasound, CT, MRI and PET scans help confirm where the cancer is located and whether it has spread.

If you are diagnosed with head or neck cancer, your doctor will need to "stage" it. Staging is finding out how much cancer is in your body and where it's located. This helps doctors plan treatment options and assess your prognosis.

Even if you were not diagnosed early, we offer the latest treatments and clinical trials for head and neck cancer, even if it has spread to other parts of the body.