Diagnosis, Risks and Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancers

Diagnosing Head and Neck Cancer

In order to diagnose your condition, your doctor will evaluate your medical history and perform a physical examination, which may include visual inspection of your oral and nasal cavities, neck, throat, and tongue. Your doctor may also feel for lumps on your neck, lips, gums, and cheeks.

Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may order some of these common diagnostic tests and procedures:

  • BiopsyThe removal of tissue, which is send to a pathologist, who studies it under a microscope. A biopsy is the only sure way to tell whether a person has cancer.
  • CT (CAT) scan: Detailed images of the interior of your head and neck that are created by a computer linked to an X-ray machine.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)The use of a powerful magnet linked to a computer to create detailed pictures of areas inside the head and neck.
  • PET scanA test using sugar modified in a specific way so that it is absorbed by cancer cells and appears as dark areas on the scan.
  • X-ray: Creates images of areas inside the head and neck on film.

If your diagnosis is cancer, your doctor will want to learn the stage, or extent, of the disease. Staging is a careful attempt to find out whether your cancer has spread and, if so, to which parts of your body. Staging may involve an examination under anesthesia in the operating room, X-rays and other imaging procedures, and laboratory tests. Knowing the stage of your head or neck cancer will help your doctor plan your treatment.

Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancer

The symptoms of several head and neck cancers include a lump or sore that does not heal, a sore throat that does not go away, difficulty swallowing, and a change or hoarseness in the voice. The following symptoms vary by cancer site, and may also be caused by less serious conditions.

  • Oral cavity: A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, or lining of the mouth; a swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable; or unusual bleeding or pain in the mouth.
  • Nasal cavity and sinuses. Sinuses that are blocked and do not clear; chronic sinus infections that do not respond to treatment with antibiotics; nosebleeds, frequent headaches, swelling or other trouble with the eyes, pain in the upper teeth, or problems with dentures.
  • Salivary glands. Swelling under the chin or around the jawbone; numbness or paralysis of the muscles in the face; or pain that does not go away in the face, chin, or neck.
  • Oropharynx and hypopharynx: Ear pain.
  • Nasopharynx: Trouble breathing or speaking, frequent headaches, pain or ringing in the ears, or trouble hearing.
  • Larynx: Pain when swallowing or ear pain.
  • Metastatic squamous neck cancer: Pain in the neck or throat that does not go away.

Head and neck cancers — from the signs of oral cancer to the symptoms of thyroid cancer— are unlike any other cancer because they affect how you eat, speak, socialize, and express yourself. In a sense, head, neck, and thyroid cancers strike at your identity.

Traditional head and neck cancer surgeries can save your life, but they can also cause drastic changes to the structures responsible for self-expression, such as your tongue, jaw, and voice box. The effects of head and neck cancer on self-image, both before and after treatment, can render you isolated and reclusive.

All of this makes Mount Sinai's minimally invasive surgical techniques, many of which were pioneered here at The Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, tremendously valuable — not only for your physical health, but for your emotional well-being, as well. Minimally invasive procedures for head and neck cancers reduce scarring and maximize efficacy, resulting in improved outcomes and quality of life.

The Mount Sinai Hospital has one of the oldest Departments of Ear, Nose, and Throat/Head and Neck Surgery in the United States, and ranks among the best in the nation, according to U.S. News & World Report's 2016-2017 edition of "Best Hospitals."

Types of Head and Neck Cancers

Head and neck cancers we treat at Mount Sinai include: