Throat Cancer Diagnosis

Before you begin treatment, your care team will need to diagnose which type of throat cancer you have. This is a key first step in developing the best treatment plan for you.

At Memorial Sloan Kettering, sophisticated pathology and imaging tests provide your care team with a great deal of information. The radiologists and pathologists who perform these tests focus on cancer care and head and neck cancer in particular. This training gives our team the expertise to ensure that you get the right diagnosis and to personalize your care as much as possible.

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Throughout the course of your treatment, we’ll continue to use some of these tests to track the size of the tumor and assess your response to treatment.

Throat Biopsy

A throat biopsy is the first step in diagnosing throat cancer. During the biopsy, your surgeon removes a small amount of abnormal tissue from the area where the cancer is suspected. The tissue sample is sent to a pathologist, who examines it under a microscope and works with the other members of your care team to make a diagnosis.

At MSK, we have a team of pathologists whose sole focus is diagnosing cancers of the head and neck. This specialization allows them to make the most precise diagnosis possible. A more precise diagnosis can improve the effectiveness of your treatment or spare you from treatment that won’t work against the disease.

Diagnostic Imaging for Throat Cancer

As part of making a diagnosis, a radiologist takes special x-rays of your throat, such as CT scans, MRIs, or a Panorex. (A Panorex is an x-ray that shows the full upper and lower jaw, plus the sinuses.)

These imaging tests provide more details about the tissue. If cancer is found, the scans can show how deep the cancer is and if it has spread.

At MSK, our radiologists use the most-advanced imaging technologies to safely detect and monitor cancer. Our extensive knowledge of throat cancer allows us to choose the imaging approach that’s best for you and to define the precise extent of the tumor.

HPV Testing for Throat Cancer

At Memorial Sloan Kettering, HPV testing is routine for many throat cancers. HPV-positive throat cancer has a better prognosis than other forms of the disease, so we may be able to offer you a less-intensive treatment plan that reduces your side effects without affecting your chances for a cure.

Genomic Testing for Advanced Throat Cancer

Genomic testing is also called tumor sequencing or molecular profiling. It involves looking at the cells obtained from the tumor to see if there are any genetic mutations (changes in your genes) that could be linked to the type of cancer you have.

For people with advanced disease, our experts use a testing approach called MSK-IMPACT. This test, developed by MSK experts, screens for mutations in more than 450 genes at once.

Based on which mutations we find, we may be able to help you avoid treatments that won’t work for you or, in some cases, recommend a drug that has been approved for the specific changes in the tumor you have. You may be able to join a clinical trial testing a new drug therapy.

Genetic information about the tumor can also help us predict the chances that the cancer will return after treatment.

Almost all of these genetic changes are found only in cancer cells, not in normal cells, which means they cannot be passed on to your children.