Head and Neck Cancer Symptoms and Diagnosis
Whether you’re having symptoms, or at a higher risk for cancer, your doctor may suggest getting checked for head and neck cancer.
Head and Neck Cancer Symptoms and Signs
In the early stages, head and neck cancer often does not cause symptoms. As the cancer grows symptoms may occur and will vary depending on where the cancer is located. Symptoms can include:
- Lump or nodule in the neck
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
- Pain in the throat or neck
- Hoarseness or other voice changes
- Swallowing or breathing troubles
- Patches of red or white on the gums, tongues, or lining of the mouth
- Lumps or bumps on the inside or outside of the mouth
- Hearing problems or ear pain
- Sinus blockage or pain
When to See a Doctor
If you are concerned with any of your symptoms, or if they are continuous, be sure to consult a doctor.
Tests for Head and Neck Cancer Diagnosis
UPMC Hillman Cancer Center specialists use state-of-the-art technologies to diagnose head and neck cancers. Your symptoms, type of cancer suspected, age, and medical history can help a doctor choose a diagnostic test.
Tests to detect and diagnose head and neck cancer may include:
- Imaging study: A test to better visualize the head and neck. Imaging can be done by using the following tests:
- CAT (CT) Scan: A test that uses a low level of radiation to take pictures of structures inside your body
- PET-CT scan: this test combines PET and CT technologies to create a detailed image that reflects your body’s biochemical activity. It uses a low level of radiation and a small amount of radioactive dye.
- High -resolution MRI scan: MRI uses a strong magnet and radio waves to take pictures of structures inside the body
- Ultrasound: this test measures the echoes of high-frequency sound waves as they bounce off structures of the body to produce images.
- Biopsy: A biopsy is taking a sample of the tissue to see if it is cancerous. A biopsy can be done in a number of ways
- Endoscopic biopsy: your doctor inserts an endoscope through the nose or mouth, or through a small incision. An endoscope is a flexible tube with a camera and a light at one end. He or she uses the endoscope's tiny surgical instruments to remove a tissue sample of the suspected cancerous site for lab analysis.
- Needle Biopsy: your doctor passes a needle through the skin and into the suspected cancerous site. He or she removes a small piece of tissue and sends it to the lab. A pathologist looks at the tissue sample through a microscope for the presence of cancer cells. Needle biopsy may be done in the office or as part of an imaging study like an ultrasound or CT scan
- Nutritional assessment: head and neck cancers can deplete the body of nutrients. Blood tests, records of tobacco and alcohol use, and weight and height can help your care team detect cancer.
- Speech and swallowing exam: oncologists and pathologists can assess your head and neck health by testing your ability to speak and swallow. These tests can serve as a baseline to measure functional outcomes after cancer treatment.
Head and Neck Cancer Staging
Staging helps every member of the care team understand the exact type, size, location, and spread of the cancer.
Your care team will conduct tests to classify the type and stage of your head or neck cancer. The stage of your cancer helps determine what the best treatment plan is.
Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Head and Neck Cancer
After being diagnosed with cancer, you may have various questions for your doctor. The good news is that your doctor and care team will be there to answer any questions you have. Common questions include:
- What are my next steps?
- What are my treatment options?
- How long will treatment last?
- What are the side effects?
Head and Neck Cancer Treatment Plan
UPMC Hillman Cancer Center is the only center in the region recognized by the National Cancer Institute as a Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Our head and neck cancer experts consider not just the stage or type of cancer but also factors that affect your well-being when developing your head and neck cancer treatment plan.
Nutrition and pain specialists work alongside surgeons, radiation oncologists, medical oncologists, and others to ensure that the focus is on you — not just your disease.