To find the cause of symptoms, a doctor evaluates a person's medical history, performs a physical examination, and orders diagnostic tests. The exams and tests conducted may vary depending on the symptoms. Examination of a sample of tissue under the microscope is always necessary to confirm a diagnosis of cancer. Some exams and tests that may be useful are described below:
Physical examination may include visual inspection of the oral and nasal cavities, neck, throat, and tongue using a small mirror and/or lights. The doctor may also feel for lumps on the neck, lips, gums, and cheeks. Endoscopy is the use of a thin, lighted tube called an endoscope to examine areas inside the body. The type of endoscope the doctor uses depends on the area being examined. For example, a laryngoscope is inserted through the mouth to view the larynx; an esophagoscope is inserted through the mouth to examine the esophagus; and a nasopharyngoscope is inserted through the nose so the doctor can see the nasal cavity and nasopharynx. Laboratory tests examine samples of blood, urine, or other substances from the body. X-rays create images of areas inside the head and neck on film. CT (or CAT) scan is a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the head and neck created by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. Magnetic resonance imaging (or MRI) uses a powerful magnet linked to a computer to create detailed pictures of areas inside the head and neck. PET scan uses sugar that is modified in a specific way so it is absorbed by cancer cells and appears as dark areas on the scan. Biopsy is the removal of tissue. A pathologist studies the tissue under a microscope to make a diagnosis. A biopsy is the only sure way to tell whether a person has cancer. If the diagnosis is cancer, the doctor will want to learn the stage of disease. Staging is a careful attempt to find out whether the cancer has spread and, if so, to which parts of the body. Staging may involve an examination under anesthesia (in the operating room), x-rays and other imaging procedures, and laboratory tests. Knowing the stage of the disease helps the doctor plan treatment.
This answer is based on source information from National Cancer Institute.
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