Health A-Z

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Diagnosis starts with a physical exam. Whether or not you have symptoms, your doctor or dentist should look for abnormal spots in your mouth during a routine visit. Your doctor may feel for any lumps or masses.

If your doctor suspects a problem, you may need to see an oral surgeon or an ear, nose and throat surgeon. To test for cancer, the surgeon will do a biopsy, which involves removing a small piece of tissue from the abnormal area. The tissue is then examined under a microscope.

After the diagnosis is made, your doctor will determine if the cancer has spread beyond the oral cavity with other tests. He or she needs this information to decide on the treatment. The tests often include:

  • an MRI scan of the head and neck

  • a CT scan of the chest, to look for cancer in lymph nodes

  • a PET scan, to look for cancer in other parts of the body

Your doctor may also look at your larynx, esophagus, and lungs by sliding a tube with a tiny camera on the end of it down your throat.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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