Imaging Tests for Head and Neck Cancer

Some of the imaging techniques used for diagnosing head and neck cancers at Virginia Mason in Seattle are listed below. These are also used in cancer surveillance.

Computed Tomography (CT or CAT) Scan

CT scans are a special form of x-ray that allows pictures of the body to be taken in cross section, greatly enhancing physician’s ability to visualize tumors of the head and neck region. CT scans have been an important asset in determining extent of disease and determining whether tumors in these regions are able to be surgically removed.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

An MRI combines a magnetic field and radio waves to create an image of the body’s internal organs. MRI scans have also been used in a similar manner as CT scans; however, CT scans are often adequate for surgical planning and staging.


Positron Emission Tomography (PET) is a newer diagnostic approach useful for some patients with head and neck cancer. The scan can be used in the treatment of certain cancers for staging a malignancy, detecting recurrence of disease and monitoring response to therapy.

Barium swallow

Occasionally in the evaluation of swallowing problems, which may lead to the diagnosis of a hypopharyngeal tumor, a barium swallow may be performed. This is a series of x-rays performed while the patient swallows a liquid which can be seen on the x-rays.

Chest X-ray

Because lung cancer and emphysema are caused by many of the same risk factors as head and neck cancer, a routine chest x-ray is performed. Any suspicious lesions on the chest x-ray may require a CT scan of the chest for further evaluation.

CT Pulmogram

The CT pulmogram can show small tumors not seen on standard chest X-ray images. The CT pulmogram is faster and uses less radiation than a standard CT. This procedure is used to improve the early diagnosis and treatment of lung cancers.

Blood work

No blood test exists to date to determine if one has a tumor of the larynx or hypopharynx. However, routine blood work is often obtained in evaluating a patients’ overall medical condition, particularly if being considered for surgery.