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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 need more tests. These tests help your healthcare providers learn more about the cancer. They can help show if it has grown into nearby tissues 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 after diagnosis 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, a series of X-rays is used to get pictures of the inside of your body from many angles. A computer then combines these images to make a detailed 3-D picture of your insides. CT scans can be used to find out the size of the tumor, exactly where it is, and if it has spread to nearby tissues or lymph nodes.

  • PET scan. A PET scan looks at your entire body. A sugar solution that contains a mildly radioactive material is put into your blood through a vein in your hand or arm. Cancer cells use the sugar faster than other cells, so the radioactive material will collect in them. Then a machine takes pictures of your whole body. The places where the solution collects show up as "hot spots" on the scan. A PET scan is often combined with a CT scan (called a PET-CT scan). This allows areas that show up on the PET scan to be compared to the more detailed images of the CT scan. This test is very good for looking for cancer that has spread from where it first started.

  • MRI. This test uses magnets and radio waves to make detailed pictures of the inside of your body. It's a lot like a CT scan, but it doesn't use X-rays. This test may be used to look for cancer that's spread to the neck.

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

  • Bone scan. For this test, a small amount of a mildly radioactive substance is put into your blood through a vein in your hand or arm. This radioactive material travels through your bloodstream and collects where there's abnormal bone growth. A machine then scans your body and makes images of the places where the radioactivity has collected. These may be areas where the cancer has spread to your 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. Be sure you know what the test will be like and why it's being done. Ask questions and talk about any concerns you have.

Online Medical Reviewer: Kimberly Stump-Sutliff RN MSN AOCNS
Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Todd Gersten MD
Date Last Reviewed: 2/1/2021
© 2021 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.