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Throat Cancers

Diagnosing Throat Cancer

Getting to a diagnosis begins with a history and physical examination. If the symptoms haven’t been present for very long, or if the history and physical examination make the doctor less suspicious that your lesion is cancer, your doctor might try some medications and rehabilitation before jumping to a diagnosis of cancer.

At some point, if your doctor is not certain of a diagnosis, and if symptoms aren’t getting better (and definitely if symptoms are getting worse), your doctor should raise the possibility of starting a cancer work-up. As with most cancers in the head and neck, this will include some combination of biopsy and imaging tests.

Be sure to bring all reports and images from any prior treatment with you to your appointment with your head and neck cancer specialist.

Imaging

Imaging refers to radiologic studies, or scans, that create pictures of the structures inside your head and neck. In general, for small tumors that are easily evaluated on physical examination, imaging might not be necessary. For larger tumors, or tumors in locations that are difficult to examine, your doctor will probably order some sort of imaging to get more information about the tumor location and possible spread to regional lymph nodes. An important reason to get a scan for throat tumors is to see if there is any evidence of spread. Spread to other locations will influence what treatment your doctor recommends for you.

For throat cancers, if imaging is required, your doctor will most likely start with a computed tomography (CT) scan with contrast. Other tests might include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and/or a positron emission tomography (PET) scan.

Biopsy

A biopsy is the removal of a small piece of tissue to examine under a microscope to see if it is cancerous. At some point, you will need a biopsy of the suspicious lesion in your throat. The biopsy report is extremely important for determining your diagnosis and treatment plan.

When performing a biopsy on a neck mass, your doctors should test for certain viruses such as human papillomavirus (HPV) and Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV). They can also test for proteins related to these viruses (e.g. P16 as it relates to HPV infection). Cancerous lymph nodes that have the HPV virus (or P16 protein) are very likely to be related to a primary cancer in the oropharynx. A positive HPV or P16 test should make your doctor spend extra time and effort looking for a small or hidden tumor somewhere in the oropharynx.

Serology

Serology involves checking your blood for certain proteins. It is sometimes used if nasopharyngeal cancer is suspected or known, to see if your body has made proteins to fight the Epstein-Barr Virus. In some cases, checking for free DNA of the virus may also help with screening.

References

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12 Referenced with permission from The NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology (NCCN Guidelines®) for Head and Neck Cancers V.2.2016. © National Comprehensive Cancer Network, Inc 2016. All rights reserved. Accessed December 7, 2016. To view the most recent and complete version of the guideline, go online to www.nccn.org.