Diagnosis of Head and Neck Cancer Diagnosis

If you experience symptoms of head and neck cancer—especially if symptoms recur or persist for longer than 2 weeks—contact your health care provider as soon as possible for a thorough examination and laboratory tests. Your primary care physician may refer you to a specialist for diagnosis.

Diagnosing head and neck cancers typically begins with an examination and biopsy of any identified suspected cancerous lesions or tumors. This involves extracting a piece of suspicious tissue and sending it to a laboratory for evaluation. In some cases the biopsy can be performed in the physician's office, although it is more common for the procedure to be done in an operating room under anesthesia.

In June 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a radioactive diagnostic imaging agent called technetium 99m tilmanocept injection (Lymphoseek) to help determine if head and neck cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes. This diagnostic tool was first approved in 2013 to identify sentinel lymph nodes—the first lymph node(s) to which cancer cells are most likely to spread from a primary tumor—in people with breast cancer or melanoma.

In this test, the radioactive tracer is injected into the primary tumor area and a hand-held radiation detector is used to find the sentinel lymph node(s). The sentinel nodes are those which take up the tracer first. Identifying the sentinel nodes may allow for more limited lymph node removal to determine if the cancer has spread. Side effects include pain or irritation at the site of the injection.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 14 Aug 1999

Last Modified: 18 Sep 2015