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Throat Cancer Diagnosis

It's important for throat cancer to be diagnosed as early and accurately as possible. This helps increase your chances for successful treatment and keeping the maximum ability to speak and swallow.

The experts at MD Anderson are among the most skilled and experienced in the nation in diagnosing and staging throat cancer. They use specialized, advanced technology that has pinpoint focus and reliable results, including three-dimensional imaging that provides detailed information.

Throat Cancer Diagnostic Tests

If you have symptoms that may signal throat cancer, your doctor will examine you and ask you questions about your health; your lifestyle, including smoking and drinking habits; your sexual history; and your family medical history.

The tests used to diagnose throat cancer and find out if it has spread depend on the type of cancer. Tests also may be used to find out if treatment has damaged other tissues or organs. One or more of the following tests may be used.


Different methods are used to obtain tissue for a biopsy, depending on where the tumor is located.

Conventional incisional biopsy: This is the traditional, most frequently used type of biopsy. The doctor surgically removes part or all of the tissue where cancer is suspected.

Fine-needle-aspiration biopsy (FNA): This type of biopsy may be used if you have a lump in your neck that can be felt. A thin needle is inserted into the area, and then cells are withdrawn and examined under a microscope.

Endoscopy: An endoscope (a long, thin tube with a light and lens through which the doctor can view organs and tissue) is inserted through the mouth, nose or an incision. The endoscope has a tool to remove tissue samples.

Imaging tests, which may include:

  • CT or CAT (computed axial tomography) scans
  • PET (positron emission tomography) scans
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans
  • Chest and dental X-rays

Barium swallow: Also called an upper GI (gastrointestinal) series, this set of X-rays of the esophagus and stomach may be used to look for cancer and find out how well you swallow.

Laryngeal videostroboscopy:  This test lets the doctor look at the larynx and see how well you swallow.

Fiberoptic endoscopic examination of swallowing (FEES): A small, flexible endoscope is inserted through the nose, allowing the doctor to examine swallowing.

Research shows that many cancers can be prevented if people applied everything known about cancer prevention to their lives.

Behavioral and lifestyle changes can help prevent throat cancer. Visit our prevention and screening section to learn how to manage your risk.

In rare cases, throat cancer can be passed down from one generation to the next. Genetic counseling may be right for you. Visit our genetic testing page to learn more.

Throat Cancer Staging

(Source: National Cancer Institute)

Staging is the process of finding out how far the cancer has spread. This is important because the type of treatment and the outlook for recovery depend on the stage of the cancer.

The staging system most often used for throat cancer is the TNM staging system, also known as the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) system.

This system gives three key pieces of information:

  • T stands for tumor (how far it has spread within the larynx or pharynx and to nearby tissues).
  • N describes whether the cancer has spread to lymph nodes.
  • M stands for metastasis (spread of the cancer) to distant organs.

All of this information is combined to arrive at a disease stage. After stage 0 (which is carcinoma in situ or cancer that has not grown beyond the lining layer of cells), stages are labeled using Roman numerals from I through IV (that is, 1 through 4). The smaller the number, the less the cancer has spread. A higher number, for example, stage IV, means a more serious stage of the disease.

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Knowledge Center

Find the latest news and information about throat cancer in our Knowledge Center, including blog posts, articles, videos, news releases and more.