- What is head and neck cancer?  
- How does cancer arise?
- What causes head and neck cancer?  
- Can cancer of the head and neck be cured?  
- Symptoms of head and neck cancer  
- Referral to a specialist
- Diagnosis of head and neck cancer  
- Stage and grade of cancer  
- Treatment for head and neck cancer  
- Follow-up after treatment  
- Clinical trials


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.