Diagnosis of Oropharyngeal Cancer

Diagnosis of Oropharyngeal Cancer

The following tests and procedures may be used to diagnose oropharyngeal cancer:
  • Physical exam and history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as swollen lymph nodes in the neck or anything else that seems unusual. The doctor does a complete exam of the mouth and neck and looks down the throat with a small, long-handled mirror to check for abnormal areas. A history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
  • X-rays: An x-ray of the organs and bones. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making pictures of areas inside the body.
  • PET scan (positron emission tomography scan): A procedure to find malignant tumor cells in the body. A small amount of radionuclide glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein. The PET scanner rotates around the body and makes a picture of where glucose is being used in the body. Malignant tumor cells show up brighter in the picture because they are more active and take up more glucose than normal cells do.
  • Endoscopy: A procedure to look at organs and tissues inside the body to check for abnormal areas. An endoscope is inserted through the patient’s nose or mouth to look at areas in the throat that cannot be seen during a physical exam of the throat. An endoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It may also have a tool to remove tissue or lymph node samples, which are checked under a microscope for signs of disease.
  • Biopsy: The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer.
Factors Affecting Prognosis and Treatment Options The prognosis (chance of recovery) depends on the following:
  • The stage and grade of the cancer.
  • The location of the tumor.
  • Whether the tumor is associated with HPV infection.
Treatment options depend on the following:
  • The stage and grade of the cancer.
  • The location of the tumor.
  • The patient’s general health.
 

Stages

The process used to find out if cancer has spread within the oropharynx or to other parts of the body is called staging. The results of some of the tests used to diagnose oropharyngeal cancer are often used to stage the disease. Cancer spreads in the body through blood, tissue or lymph system. When cancer cells break away from the primary (original) tumor and travel through the lymph or blood to other places in the body, another (secondary) tumor may form. This process is called metastasis. The secondary (metastatic) tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. The following stages are used for oropharyngeal cancer:

Stage 0 (Carcinoma in Situ)

In stage 0, abnormal cells are found in the lining of the oropharynx. These abnormal cells may become cancer and spread into nearby normal tissue. Stage 0 is also called carcinoma in situ.

Stage I

In stage I, cancer has formed and is 2 centimeters or smaller and has not spread outside the oropharynx.

Stage II

In stage II, the cancer is larger than 2 centimeters, but not larger than 4 centimeters, and has not spread outside the oropharynx.

Stage III

In stage III, the cancer is either:
  • larger than 4 centimeters and has not spread outside the oropharynx; or
  • any size and has spread to only one lymph node on the same side of the neck as the cancer. The lymph node with cancer is 3 centimeters or smaller.
 

Stage IVA

In stage IVA, the cancer either:
  • has spread to tissues near the oropharynx, including the voice box, roof of the mouth, lower jaw, muscle of the tongue, or central muscles of the jaw, and may have spread to one or more nearby lymph nodes, none larger than 6 centimeters; or
  • is any size and has spread to one lymph node that is larger than 3 centimeters but not larger than 6 centimeters on the same side of the neck as the cancer, or to more than one lymph node, none larger than 6 centimeters, on one of both sides of the neck.
 

Stage IVB

In stage IVB, the cancer either:
  • surrounds the main artery in the neck or has spread to bones in the jaw or skull, to muscle in the side of the jaw, or to the upper part of the throat behind the nose, and may have spread to nearby lymph nodes; or
  • has spread to a lymph node that is larger than 6 centimeters and may have spread to tissues around the oropharynx.
 

Stage IVC

In stage IVC, cancer has spread to other parts of the body; the tumor may be any size and may have spread to lymph nodes.

Recurrent Oropharyngeal Cancer

Recurrent oropharyngeal cancer is cancer that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. The cancer may come back in the oropharynx or in other parts of the body.