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Important Tests That Help Evaluate Oral Cancer

Your doctor took a sample of cells from your mouth and perhaps your neck in a process called a biopsy in order to know that you have cancer.

Your doctor may request more tests to learn more about your specific type of cancer and its location. These tests provide information that your health care team uses to help determine the treatment that is likely to be most effective for you. Here are some of the tests you may need to have.

Computed Tomography (CT scan)

The CT scan is 100 times more sensitive than a typical X-ray. Your doctor may get scans of your head and neck area, to see if a tumor exists in the oral cavity, lymph nodes, or elsewhere. Your doctor may also get scans of your entire lower jawbone, also called the mandible.

To have the test, you lie still on a table as it gradually slides through the center of the CT scanner. Then the scanner directs a continuous beam of X-rays at your head. A computer uses the data from the X-rays to create many pictures, which can be used together to create a three-dimensional (3D) image. A CT scan is painless and noninvasive. You may be asked to hold your breath one or more times during the scan. Often, after the first set of pictures is taken, you’ll get an injection of a dye that helps doctors get an even clearer view of what’s happening inside your body. Then technicians take a second set of scans.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

MRIs are used to determine if cancer has spread from your mouth to your neck. MRIs can also show the size and extent of any cancer that has spread. These pictures can show the difference between normal and diseased tissue.

For this test, you lie still on a table as it passes through a tube-like scanner. Then the scanner directs a continuous beam of radiofrequency radiation at the area being examined. A computer uses the data from the radio waves to create a 3D picture of the inside of your body. You may need more than one set of images. Each one may take 2 to 15 minutes, so the whole experience may take an hour or more. You may be injected with a dye before getting this scan to help the doctors get an even clearer view of what is happening inside your body. This test is painless and noninvasive. Ask for earplugs if they aren’t offered, because there is a loud thumping noise during the scan. If you are claustrophobic, you may be given a sedative before having this test.

Positron Emission Tomography (PET scan)

PET can scan your entire body, so it’s more helpful than a series of several different X-rays. The PET scan shows which parts of your body are using glucose. Glucose use is a sign of active, quickly dividing cells, such as cancer cells. A PET scan may show if cancer has spread to lymph nodes or other parts of the body.

For this test, you get injected with a small amount of radioactive glucose. Then you lie still on a table that is pushed into the PET scanner, which rotates around you, taking pictures. Some people are sensitive to the radioactive glucose and may have nausea, headache, or vomiting.

Barium Swallow

This test is a series of X-rays performed while you swallow a liquid containing barium. This liquid will show up on X-rays. Because people with oral cancer are at risk for cancers of the digestive tract, your doctor may use this test to see if there is cancer in your esophagus. It also shows how well you swallow and whether the cancer is interfering with normal swallowing.

Chest X-ray

A chest X-ray can help show whether cancer has spread into your lungs. Unless your cancer is far advanced, it is very unlikely that the cancer will have spread.

“How Are Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancers Diagnosed?” American Cancer Society, February 26, 2013. Accessed 2013.

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