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Head and Neck Cancer: Tests after Diagnosis

What tests might I have after being diagnosed?

After a diagnosis of head and neck cancer, you will likely have other tests. These tests help your healthcare providers learn more about your cancer. They can help show if the cancer has grown into nearby areas or spread to other parts of the body. The test results help your healthcare providers decide the best ways to treat the cancer. If you have any questions about these or other tests, be sure to talk with your healthcare team.

Some of the tests used  to find and diagnose the cancer may be after diagnosis. The tests can include:

  • Chest X-ray

  • CT scan

  • PET scan

  • MRI

  • Ultrasound 

  • Bone scan

Imaging tests

  • Chest X-ray. This X-ray may be done to see if the cancer has spread to your lungs.

  • CT scan. In this test, an X-ray beam takes a series of pictures of the inside of your body from many angles. These images are then combined by a computer, giving a detailed 3-D picture of your body. CT scans can be used to find out the size of the tumor and if it has spread to nearby tissues or lymph nodes.

  • PET scan. A PET scan can look at your entire body. This test measures the metabolic activity of your tissues. A sugar solution that contains a mildly radioactive material is injected into your vein. Then a machine takes pictures of your entire body. The places where the solution collects show up as "hot spots" on the scan. These areas may be cancer because cancer cells use the sugar solution faster than other cells. A PET scan is often combined with a CT scan (PET-CT scan). This allows areas that show up on the PET scan to be compared to the more detailed image of the CT scan.

  • MRI. This test uses magnets and radio waves to take detailed pictures of the inside of your body, much like a CT scan. But MRIs don’t use X-rays. This test may be used to look for cancer that's spread to the neck.

  • Ultrasound. This test may be used to look for swollen lymph nodes in your neck, which can be a sign of cancer spread. It can also look for cancer that may have spread to the liver. 

  • Bone scan. For this test, a small amount of a mildly radioactive substance is injected into your veins. This radioactive material travels through your bloodstream and collects in areas of abnormal bone growth. A machine scans your body for the places where the substance has collected. These may be areas where the cancer has spread to the bones.

Working with your healthcare provider

Talk with your healthcare provider about which tests you'll have. Make sure to get ready for the tests as instructed. Ask questions and talk about any concerns you have.

Online Medical Reviewer: Gersten, Todd, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Stump-Sutliff, Kim, RN, MSN, AOCNS
Date Last Reviewed: 5/1/2018
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