Imaging Tests for Head and Neck Cancer
To identify cancer, you may need tests with scanning machines that produce images of your body. A radiologist will interpret these images to understand the precise location and size of a tumor.
At Stanford, our imaging technicians specialize in imaging the head and neck, providing deep expertise you can trust. Imaging may include:
An ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves to create images of the mouth or throat and surrounding lymph nodes. Ultrasound does not use radiation and is painless. It can provide clearer images of soft tissues.
- Show greater detail of abnormalities
- Distinguish between different types of tissues, such as fluid-filled cysts and solid masses
- Help guide a biopsy needle to take a tissue sample and test for cancer
- Look for potential spread of cancer to lymph nodes
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses radio waves and a powerful magnetic field to create detailed, cross-sectional pictures of tissues. MRI does not use radiation.
During the diagnostic process, MRI can help us:
- Better evaluate abnormal findings on an ultrasound
- Measure cancer tumors after diagnosis
- Determine whether cancer has spread beyond the primary site to other areas in the neck
After treatment has begun, an MRI can show how well cancer treatment – surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy – is working by monitoring the size of the tumor to see if it is shrinking.
If you receive a diagnosis of an invasive grade of cancer, you may need a chest x-ray. This test can show your doctor whether the cancer has spread.
A bone scan can rule out whether cancer has spread to your bones. Also called skeletal scintigraphy, the test uses a small amount of radioactive material to highlight any abnormal tissue, which may indicate cancer. Your doctor may recommend a bone scan if you are diagnosed with an invasive type of cancer.
PET and CT scans
A positron emission tomography (PET) scan is a nuclear imaging test that uses a small amount of radioactive material to highlight areas of suspicious cells. Computed tomography (CT) scans use x-ray technology to take cross-sectional images of the body. We use these technologies alone or combined, depending on the information we need from the scans.
During treatment for cancer, our doctors use PET scans alone to:
- Determine whether cancer has spread to the lymph nodes (small glands that filter bacteria, viruses, cancer cells, and other impurities) or other parts of the body and, if so, where
- Monitor how well cancer is responding to treatment
- See if cancer has returned after treatment
We offer combined PET/CT scanning, which takes both scans at the same time and in the same machine to keep you in the same position. This technique allows us to combine CT images of the body with PET scans that highlight possible areas of cancer.
The combined PET/CT images show the specific locations of any cancer, providing more precise information for treatment. We use PET/CT scans to:
- Stage cancer
- Check other parts of the body to see if cancer has spread there
- Monitor cancer’s response to treatment
Bone mineral density test
Your doctor may recommend a bone mineral density test before treatment for cancer. Cancer treatment can put you at a higher risk for developing osteoporosis, a condition that causes bone loss and fragile, brittle bones. Measuring your bone mineral density before treatment gives us a baseline, so we can compare later test results with initial bone loss.
Current as of: 1/2020