Diagnosis of head and neck cancer
The hospital specialist will ask you about your symptoms and
medical history, and will examine you by:
- Holding a mirror at the back of your mouth to look at the
mouth and throat
- Passing a tiny flexible telescope (nasoendoscope) into your
nose to look at your nose and throat, or through your nose into
your sinuses (nasopharyngoscopy)
- Taking a sample of any areas that might be cancer (biopsy).
The first two procedures can last a few minutes and may feel
uncomfortable. You may be offered a local anaesthetic (lozenge in
mouth), to numb your mouth for a few minutes. An anaesthetic spray
may be used to numb the back of your throat. It is important not
to eat or drink anything for about 1 hour after your throat is
sprayed, until your throat stops feeling numb. While your throat
is numb, food or drink may go down your windpipe when you try to
swallow, causing you to choke.
Only taking a biopsy –a sample of cells from the abnormal area
– and examining it under a microscope can make a definite
diagnosis. The doctor may decide it is possible to take a biopsy
in the clinic. Local anaesthetic is used to numb the area from
which the biopsy will be taken. A very fine needle or special
tweezers is used to remove a small piece of the abnormal tissue.
However, it is most likely that a biopsy will need to be taken
under a general anaesthetic. This will involve a day visit to the
hospital and sometimes an overnight stay. A
CT (CAT) scan or
MRI scan may be performed
before taking a biopsy to help identify the affected areas.