Imaging tests for head and neck cancers
You will usually have at least one of the imaging tests described here, often before a biopsy is done. These tests give more details about where the cancer is and whether it has spread to other parts of your body.
Learn more about these imaging tests:
An ultrasound is sometimes used, particularly to look at the thyroid, salivary glands and lymph glands in the neck.
For this scan, you will lie down and a gel will be spread over your neck. A small device called a transducer is moved over the area. The transducer sends out soundwaves that echo when they encounter something dense, like an organ or tumour. The ultrasound images are then projected onto a computer screen. An ultrasound is painless and takes about 15-20 minutes.
A CT (computerised tomography) scan uses x-ray beams to create detailed cross-sectional pictures of the inside of your body. Before the scan, you may have an injection of dye (called contrast) into a vein to make the pictures clearer. The dye may make you feel hot all over and leave a strange taste in your mouth for a few minutes. For the scan, you will need to lie still on a table that moves in and out of the CT scanner, which is large and round like a doughnut. The scan itself takes about 10 minutes.
A positron emission tomography (PET) scan combined with a CT scan is a specialised imaging test. The CT helps pinpoint the location of any abnormalities revealed by the PET scan. A PET–CT scan is usually recommended to see if the cancer has spread.
Before the scan, you will be injected with a glucose solution containing some radioactive material. Cancer cells show up brighter on the scan because they take up more glucose solution than the normal cells do. You will be asked to sit quietly for 30–90 minutes as the glucose spreads through your body, then you will be scanned. The scan itself takes about 30 minutes.
An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan uses a powerful magnet and radio waves to create detailed cross-sectional pictures of the inside of your body. A dye may be injected into a vein before the scan to help make the pictures clearer. During the scan, you will lie on a table that slides into a large metal tube that is open at both ends.
The noisy, narrow machine makes some people feel anxious or claustrophobic. If you think you may become distressed, mention this beforehand to your doctor or nurse. You may be given medicine to help you relax, and you will usually be offered headphones or earplugs. MRI scans usually take 30–90 minutes.
Before having scans, tell the doctor if you have any allergies or have had a reaction to dyes during previous scans. You should also let them know if you have diabetes or kidney disease or are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Some people have a special x-ray called an orthopantomogram (OPG) to check the jaw and teeth.
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A/Prof Richard Gallagher, Head and Neck Surgeon, Director of Cancer Services and Head and Neck Cancer Services, St Vincent’s Health Network, NSW; Dr Sophie Beaumont, Head of Dental Oncology, Dental Practitioner, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Bena Brown, Speech Pathologist, Princess Alexandra Hospital, and Senior Research Fellow, Menzies School of Health Research, QLD; Dr Teresa Brown, Assistant Director, Nutrition and Dietetics, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, QLD; Lisa Castle-Burns, Head and Neck Cancer Specialist Nurse, Canberra Region Cancer Centre, The Canberra Hospital, ACT; A/Prof Ben Chua, Radiation Oncologist, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, GenesisCare Rockhampton and Brisbane, QLD; Elaine Cook, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria; Dr Andrew Foreman, Specialist Ear, Nose and Throat Surgeon, Royal Adelaide Hospital, SA; Tony Houey, Consumer; Dr Annette Lim, Medical Oncologist and Clinician Researcher – Head and Neck and Non-melanoma Skin Cancer, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and The University of Melbourne, VIC; Paula Macleod, Head, Neck and Thyroid Cancer Nurse Coordinator, Northern Sydney Cancer Centre, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW; Dr Aoife McGarvey, Physiotherapist and Accredited Lymphoedema Practitioner, Physio Living, Newcastle, NSW; Rick Pointon, Consumer; Teresa Simpson Senior Clinician, Psycho-Oncology Social Work Service, Cancer Therapy Centre, Liverpool Hospital, NSW.
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