Further tests for head and neck cancer
If the biopsy shows that there is a cancer, further tests will be done to find out its size and position, and to see whether it has spread.
This process is called staging
, and may take some time. The results will help you and your doctor decide on the best treatment for you. Sometimes these tests may be repeated, during and after treatment, to check on your progress.
You may have x-rays taken of your face or neck to see whether any bones have been affected and to check the health of your teeth.
A chest x-ray may be done to check your general health and to see whether the cancer has spread to the lungs. It’s very rare for head and neck cancers to spread beyond the head and neck area, but if they do it’s usually to the lungs. Sometimes the lungs are looked at on a CT scan.
CT (computerised tomography) scan
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A CT scan takes a series of x-rays, which build up a three-dimensional picture of the inside of the body. The scan takes 10-30 minutes and is painless. It uses a small amount of radiation, which is very unlikely to harm you and will not harm anyone you come into contact with. You will be asked not to eat or drink for at least four hours before the scan.
You may be given a drink or injection of a dye, which allows particular areas to be seen more clearly. This may make you feel hot all over for a few minutes. It’s important to let your doctor know if you are allergic to iodine or have asthma, because you could have a more serious reaction to the injection.
You’ll probably be able to go home as soon as the scan is over.
MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan
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This test uses magnetism to build up a detailed picture of areas of your body. The scanner is a powerful magnet so you may be asked to complete and sign a checklist to make sure it’s safe for you.
The checklist asks about any metal implants you may have, such as a pacemaker, surgical clips or bone pins. You should also tell your doctor if you’ve ever worked with metal or in the metal industry as very tiny fragments of metal can sometimes lodge in the body. If you do have any metal in your body, it’s likely that you won’t be able to have an MRI scan. In this situation, another type of scan can be used.
Before the scan, you’ll be asked to remove any metal belongings including jewellery. Some people are given an injection of dye into a vein in the arm, which doesn’t usually cause discomfort. This is called a contrast medium and can help the images from the scan to show up more clearly.
During the test you’ll lie very still on a couch inside a long cylinder (tube) for about 30 minutes. It’s painless but can be slightly uncomfortable, and some people feel a bit claustrophobic. It’s also noisy, but you’ll be given earplugs or headphones. You can hear, and speak to, the person operating the scanner.
This is a combination of a CT scan, which takes a series of x-rays to build up a three-dimensional picture, and a positron emission tomography (PET) scan.
A PET scan uses low-dose radiation to measure the activity of cells in different parts of the body.
PET-CT scans give more detailed information about the part of the body being scanned. You may have to travel to a specialist centre to have one. You can’t eat for six hours before the scan, although you may be able to drink.
A mildly radioactive substance is injected into a vein, usually in your arm. The radiation dose used is very small. The scan is done after at least an hour’s wait. It usually takes 30-90 minutes. You should be able to go home after the scan.
Waiting for test results
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Waiting for test results can be a difficult time. It may take from a few days to a couple of weeks for the results of your tests to be ready. You may find it helpful to talk with your partner, family or a close friend. Your specialist nurse can also provide support. You can also talk things over with one of our cancer support specialists.