Imaging tests for head and neck cancers
You will usually have at least one of the tests described in this section to provide more details about the location of the tumour and to see if the cancer has spread to other parts of your body.
|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.|
Learn more about these imaging tests:
You may need x-rays to check for tumours or damage to the bones. X-rays are quick and painless, and include:
- orthopantomogram (OPG) – used to examine the jaw and teeth of people with mouth cancer
- chest x-ray – sometimes used to check the general health of people with mouth, pharyngeal or laryngeal cancer, or to see whether the cancer has spread to the lungs. However, most people have a CT or PET-CT scan to look at these areas.
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 one of your veins, which makes 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.
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 treatment 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 between 30 and 90 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 help diagnose oral, pharyngeal or laryngeal cancer, or 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 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.
I was diagnosed with cancer after I felt recurring pain in my front left jaw. I had intrusive surgery, which meant my facial nerve was cut, causing paralysis in my face, but I am currently free of the cancer.
Geoff (salivary gland cancer)
A/Prof David Wiesenfeld, Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon, Director, Head and Neck Tumour Stream, The Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre at Melbourne Health, VIC; Alan Bradbury, Consumer; Dr Ben Britton, Senior Clinical and Health Psychologist, John Hunter Hospital, NSW; Dr Madhavi Chilkuri, Radiation Oncologist, Townsville Cancer Centre, The Townsville Hospital, QLD; Jedda Clune, Senior Dietitian (Head and Neck Cancer), Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, WA; Dr Fiona Day, Staff Specialist, Medical Oncology, Calvary Mater Newcastle, and Conjoint Senior Lecturer, The University of Newcastle, NSW; Dr Ben Dixon, ENT, Head and Neck Surgeon, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, VIC; Emma Hair, Senior Social Worker, St George Hospital, NSW; Rosemerry Hodgkin, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Kara Hutchinson, Head and Neck Cancer Nurse Coordinator, St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, VIC; A/Prof Julia Maclean, Speech Pathologist, St George Hospital, NSW; Prof Jane Ussher, Chair, Women’s Health Psychology, Translational Health Research Institute (THRI), School of Medicine, Western Sydney University, NSW; Andrea Wong, Physiotherapist, St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, VIC. We also thank the health professionals, consumers and editorial teams who have worked on previous editions of this title.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
Click below to download a PDF booklet on this topic.
Coping with cancer?
Speak to a health professional or to someone who has been there, or find a support group or forum
Need legal and financial assistance?
Practical advice and support during and after treatment
Looking for transport, accommodation or home help?
Practical advice and support during and after treatment
Dealing with the diagnosis
Common reactions to a cancer diagnosis and how to find hope
Patient rights and responsibilities
What you can reasonably expect from your health care providers
View our publications
Guides and fact sheets for people with cancer, their families and friends